La battaglia di Algeri
starring Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi, Samia Kerbash
screenplay by Gillo Pontecorvo & Franco Solinas
directed by Gillo Pontecorvo
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover Questions abound during a screening of The Battle of Algiers, first and foremost: what the hell is it? It's not exactly agitprop, not quite a thriller, not really a historical epic--it's a strange bird that combines each of these forms into a one-off genre all its own. The film has a reputation as high as the ceiling (as the multiple screenings in my film-school days can attest), and given its singularity, it's not hard to see why: this is not some dowdy history lesson or humourless political screed, but a swift, shapely love letter to those who fought and died in the name of Algerian independence. As a love letter, it's so typically wrapped up in its own feelings that it can't relate the struggle to something outside of its own borders--but there's no denying the writers' commitment and depth of feeling, as well as the significant impact of The Battle of Algiers' bullet to the heart of empire.
The film wastes no time in grabbing the sensibility of the viewer. We are dropped into a safe house on October 7, 1957; having surround the building, French paratroopers give the lone remaining guerrilla leader Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) an ultimatum to give up or die in his cubbyhole. Suddenly we flash back to November 1, 1954--the point at which a three-year-long battle commences, with illiterate, desperate La Pointe being inducted into the ranks and enduring a trial by fire. We segue into the escalating conflict: policemen being killed and their weapons stolen; retaliation by the police with a bomb; retaliation for the retaliation with bombs at cafés and in the Air France terminal... All of this culminates in the arrival of the paratroopers under the methodical guidance of Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), who will do what it takes to quell the unrest--meaning a raid of the Casbah in search of some suspects to torture.
The Battle of Algiers whisks by in a brisk forward motion, carrying the viewer on to--what, exactly? As propaganda, the film is tunnel-visioned, so completely locked in to the specificity of the Algerian struggle that it fails to link it to similar struggles happening elsewhere. As history, it's a bit disjointed, recording what initially looks like a failure only to jump ahead to a revolution that looks spontaneous and uncoordinated. And though one is tempted to describe it as some kind of political thriller, there's clearly more at play here than the simple generic thrill of the chase--but what, and how to use it? The only thing one is sure of is that it's been etched with enough care to make you feel the machinations of both revolutionary heroes and colonial oppressors in such a manner that you cannot remain detached, dispassionate, or disinterested.
This, in the end, is sufficient. If the film won't win many converts to the anti-imperialist cause, it will give armchair radicals pause enough to consider what is involved in getting off the couch. Director Gillo Pontecorvo and screenwriter Solinas have done an excellent job at giving substance and shape to the methods of the revolution, getting beyond speechifying into a gritty nuts-and-bolts of how it works and how those in power resist it. Not, perhaps, the stuff of cogent argument, but important in creating a sense of what those with whom we already sympathize had to endure. And it is this endurance that grants The Battle of Algiers its urgency, as it gives a Euro-American audience some idea of what the consequences of its policies might be: a forced furtive existence under the radar of the villains who seek to crush them. It's no manifesto, but it's plenty information for me. Originally published: July 2, 2004.