Half a century after its debut, The Battle of Algiers has a permanent parking spot in the film canon. After taking home the Golden Lion at the 1966 Venice Film Festival, it was nominated for three Academy Awards (one in 1967 and two in 1969, oddly) and now ranks within the top 50 in Sight & Sound’s all-time poll. It’s a film so clear-eyed and thorough in its tick-tock dramatization of a failed but historically influential uprising of Algerian natives against their French occupiers that it’s been studied and celebrated by revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries alike. It’s proven relevant at almost every anxious turn of post-colonial global politics, speaking to questions of terrorism, torture, guerrilla resistance and racial profiling. Maybe you watched it in school. Perhaps you’re among the top ops who watched it at the Pentagon as research during the early stages of the invasion of Iraq. Either way, you’ll get another chance starting this week, thanks to a new 4K restoration.
In light of such enduring approbation, it can be difficult to appreciate how divisively Gillo Pontecorvo's film was received at first. After its delegation stormed out of Venice when the top prize was announced, France banned the film for five years; its release was similarly stalled in the UK. Even after the prolonged delay, pro-military and reactionary elements protested violently in both France and Italy. Meanwhile in Algiers, as well as among international critics, the film received criticism for being too sympathetic to the French, particularly in its depiction of the dashing intellectual Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin) and some merciless acts of violence by the revolutionaries. And for all these historical and political concerns, it also can be difficult to appreciate the movie as a movie, to see it for the genre-promiscuous procedural thriller that it also is.
Like a Billy Wilder noir, The Battle of Algiers starts at the end, with a distressed (and likely tortured) Algerian man coughing up the hiding place of Ali La Pointe (Brahim Hadjadj) and three comrades from the National Liberation Front (FLN). “You’re the last one. It’s all over,” La Pointe is told from behind a tiled wall, where seemingly the entire French army has gathered, their advance scored to Ennio Morricone’s military-march-by-way-of-Dragnet music. Thus the Battle of Algiers is already, or about to be, lost. But not before a close-up of La Pointe’s pained face fades from focus and we’re thrust back three years to 1954.
Here Pontecorvo toggles to a mode popularized by his elder countrymen, that of Italian Neorealism. La Pointe isn’t the educated, charismatic leader we’re accustomed to seeing onscreen — he’s shown to be an illiterate, petty hustler who’s radicalized in prison after witnessing a dissident killed by guillotine. Back on the street a few months later, he’s less revolutionary leader than impassioned assassin, willing to kill for his convictions — an important attribute as the FLN begins to incorporate violent methods. Broke, disserved and exploited by the capitalist colonial system, and brought to life by a nonprofessional actor with stratospheric cheekbones, Ali inhabits a universe similar to that of the characters in, say, The Bicycle Thief or Rome, Open City.
From there, events hustle forward, toward a present tense, with sequences organized by dateline and eventually timeline. A card informs us that it’s 11:20 a.m., and suddenly we’re in the moment: aware of the clock, represented by Morricone’s drum beat, and aware of the stakes as three female revolutionaries don street clothes as if they’re putting on fatigues, planning to carry out syncopated terror strikes in three different public spaces. It’s a sequence that’s been analyzed for 50 years, yet largely through lenses of politics, interrogating where the film’s empathies lie at any given second. Whereas cinematically, it’s simply astonishing. The clock-as-monster device evokes Kubrick’s The Killing, the merciless/merciful montage of faces in the moment right before they’re made to suffer recalls Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and the interwoven acts of violence offer a blueprint for the ritual score-settling of The Godfather films.
Yet Pontecorvo’s most innovative and persuasive genre play was to crib from observational documentary, shooting whole sections of The Battle of Algiers as if its incidents were being spontaneously recorded. Riffing on the emergent Pennebaker-Leacock-Maysles approach, Pontecorvo and cinematographer Marcello Gatti often let the camera react to events, rather than overtly blocking them for the best exposure. Characters slip out of focus and off frame. When guns are fired or bombs detonate, the camera shakes and adjusts, subtly persuading viewers that what we’re watching is really happening. As technique, it’s wildly effective, such that audiences might still be fooled into thinking that news or documentary footage has been edited into the narrative.
On an ethical level, it’s a whole other ballgame. For all of its revolutionary ambitions and implications, this formal audacity is one of the film’s most enduring provocations. It uses realism as an effect, documentary as a style. You feel that you’re really there, and you can’t help but be moved. It certainly serves the movie, but has it served reality, especially as this fictional account of the Algerian uprising remains the definitive one? 50 years, thousands of fake-blood-splattered lenses and the full development of a docu-style aesthetic later, the question remains open.