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Rialto Pictures


Director: Gillo Pontecorvo

Producers: Antonio Musu, Yasef Saadi

Written by: Gillo Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas

Cast: Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin


I knew nothing of The Battle Of Algiers before viewing it early one Friday morning with an audience that numbered less than 10. One might think it prudent, or perhaps even necessary, for a film reviewer to engage in at least a slight bit of research if said reviewer is unfamiliar with the film he is to review. Bah, I thought to myself; let it come as a surprise. It’s sure to be nothing more than one of those modern, under-the-radar foreign dramedies about family ties or relationships masked by a metaphorically overblown title. Yes, I thought, it will prove to be light, life-affirming Friday morning fare, fluffy and buoyant, like a miniature croissant with breakfast.

Approximately four seconds into The Battle Of Algiers I realized that I was an idiot.

Made in 1965, banned in France in the same year, winner of the Grand Prize at the 1966 Venice Film Festival, nominated for three 1969 Academy Awards (Best Foreign Film, Best Screenplay, Best Director), screened by the Pentagon in 2003, and currently advertised as “the most important film of 2004,” The Battle Of Algiers is a film of legendary significance, lauded and lambasted for its frank, documentary-like portrayal of revolution when initially released, and it remains today tragically relevant for a familiar-but-new cache of reasons. It is inescapably political, plodding, frustrating, prophetic, haunting, tragic, humbling. It is not light. It will not make you laugh. You will not feel good as the lights fade up and you vacate the shelter of the theater and you unlock your car and you drive away, into the smoggy reality of right now, and you come to realize that our world has been fucked up, primitive and unchanged, for a long, long time.

The Battle Of Algiers makes every effort to not coddle is audience. There is no context supplied to enlighten the viewers of the political conflicts into which they are immediately abandoned. The narrative is unconventional, and approached, as previously stated, like a documentary. It is not a character-driven film, and there are often no recognizable faces for the viewer to comfortably follow. The film’s protagonist, in fact, is the city of Algiers, located in the country of Algeria, which sits helpless as it is sliced and shredded, riddled with bullets and bombed, and splashed with the blood of both the militant, occupying French and the indigenous, independence-seeking Arabs. The ultimate resolution belongs to the city and the masses which tread atop it, not one, single character.

The characters who recur most frequently—Ali La Pointe (Haggiag), enforcer of the FLN liberation movement, and Colonel Mathieu (Martin), the French military leader brought in to eradicate the increasingly-violent terrorists—are provided with little personal record, and are merely historical conduits by which Pontecorvo offers the viewer an unbiased account of both sides of the conflict. Whereas most films automatically deify the colonel and vilify the terrorist, The Battle Of Algiers represents the diametrically opposed figureheads of each group with startling equality. Both individuals resolutely believe in their goals, both kill, both do what they must to achieve what they feel is best for Algiers. And despite being nothing more than facades of actual characters, both characters do evoke, mostly through the expressions and dialogue deliveries by Haggiag and Martin, humanity. Neither one a hero, neither one a monster.

The Battle Of Algiers is about balance. Though perhaps a trite statement, the film does challenge the perceptions of what is good and what is evil. It humanizes the terrorists, and dehumanizes the military, and vice versa. It simultaneously expresses all aspects of the conflict it faux-documents, unflinchingly illustrating acts both noble and ignoble. It is a difficult film to endure, it is exhausting and bullying and not particularly entertaining, but it is, undoubtedly, important. Especially, dare I say, for Americans who mindlessly assume that our current political agenda is inarguably fair and just, and that we are the intractably correct pillars of democracy and goodwill throughout the world; that terrorists are nothing more than sub-human extensions of unwholesome, un-American, barbaric tribes, hell-bent on exterminating America out of feral jealousy. I believe that tensions have escalated too far, and that it’s only a matter of time before the rash decisions of a few fat, balding power-elite will result in inevitable nuclear holocaust and the end of all things, and I feel that this film supports that. To others, this film may support a different, more optimistic belief. Therein, though, is the tragic beauty of The Battle Of Algiers: It warrants thought, belief, and opinion in a medium currently resigned to force-feed Americans blockbuster tripe high in glazed fat but devoid of fibrous content.

Nathan Baran


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