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A cinematic study guide: "The Battle of Algiers"

Posted at 10:34 AM on May 9, 2006 by Euan Kerr

A line recently caught my eye in Peter Biskind's book "Easy Riders and Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock'N'Roll Generation Saved Hollywood." It was about how in the 60's members of the Black Panther movement began going to screenings of "The Battle of Algiers" to take notes. They were apparently looking for ways to promote a revolution.

I'd never seen director Gillo Pontecorvo’s account of the anti-French insurrection in Algeria in the late 1950's, so I went in search of a copy. I sat down Sunday morning with it and I've been thinking about it ever since.

It's a harrowing film. Shot in black and white, using only one professional actor in a cast of hundreds. The film roams through the narrow back alleys of the Casbah, and through the less crowded areas in the European Quarter, following the story of the FLN as it tries to oust the French colonists.

Pontecorvo’s sympathies clearly lie with the Algerians, but this film is far from simplistic. The rebels come across as idealistic but flawed and sometimes brutal. The police and soldiers are more resigned than idealistic, but they too slip easily into brutality as the violence escalates. Some of these men are veterans of the French Resistance, and know this form of warfare all too well. But this time they are the occupying force.

In the middle is the rest of the population, Algerian and French, uncertain and terrified.

Two central characters stand out: Ali la Pointe, an illiterate petty criminal and former boxer who becomes a rebel leader, and Col. Mathieu the commander of the French paratroops, the elite force sent in to quash the rebellion.
Brahim Haggiag, a farmer Pontecorvo found as he travelled around, plays Ali. Apparently he'd never even heard of movies when the director approached him. His performance is unstudied and riveting.

At the other end is Jean Martin as the hard-nosed Mathieu. He is a study in self-control, ready to do whatever it takes to complete his mission. He seems so reasonable as he discusses the necessity for torture to hunt down the rebel leaders.

Intriguingly, almost four decades after the Black Panthers were lining up to see "The Battle of Algiers," the movie was screened at the Pentagon for staff working on the occupation of Iraq. There are differing views as to whether there was any value to doing that, but it says something about the power of a film that it still shocks 40 years later.

May 2006
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