La battaglia di Algeri

>> Tuesday, April 27, 2010

I finally got to see La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle Of Algiers) (1966) this past Sunday when they showed it up at Neighborhood Theatre. It was one Neighborhood Theatre and the event sponsor, The Light Factory has, if I recall correctly, tried to show a few years ago during a film festival but something interfered with the screening, and then the movie's been out as a Criterion DVD for a couple of years now, but this was my first chance to see it. And at the risk of engaging in hyperbole, it's one of those films that any thinking person ought to watch.

By way of explanation for that let me jump ahead of myself a little: if The Battle Of Algiers sounds familiar to you but you can't quite place it, it may be because you're thinking of a news item from 2003. That was the year that the movie, a depiction of the Algerian insurgency and French counterinsurgency during the Algerian War, was screened at The Pentagon by the Department Of Defense. A flyer for the event carried this tagline:

How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.

The movie, in other words, is distressingly relevant nearly half-a-century after its original release.

But let's come back to that in a moment. The movie would be worth seeing even if it wasn't so bitterly, pointedly applicable to the repetitions of history, which, contrary to an old saying, doesn't always choose to repeat tragedies as farce--sometimes tragedy is repeated as tragedy. Director Gillo Pontecorvo wanted the movie, a fictionalized account of events with composite characters, to have the look of documentaries, of news footage, but in the digitally restored print the result isn't merely an authentic look but some of the most glorious black-and-white photography out there. That the film is beautiful to look at even while the events caught on film are horror and tragedy is a nasty juxtaposition, but also a brutally effective trick.

The movie begins at the ending, with French soldiers wrapping up the torture of an informant and, acting on the intelligence received, raiding a safehouse occupied by the last free National Liberation Front (FLN) ringleader in Algiers, Ali La Pointe (Brahim Hadjadj). The bulk of the film is then a prolonged flashback: Ali La Pointe is a con artist on the streets of Algiers, is imprisoned, witnesses the execution of a FLN leader while locked away and joins FLN. FLN engages in an escalating terror campaign, beginning with the murders of French police officers and soldiers. The French respond, predictably and understandably by cracking down on the Casbah, and less forgivably through their own campaign of terror and vigilantism. FLN escalates their own violence, and the French ultimately send in a division of paratroopers led by Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), who is given an apparently open portfolio to regain control of the city by any means necessary; recognizing that the FLN's pyramidal structure--three-member cells in which each member only knows the person who recruited him and the two members he himself recruited--is both the FLN's greatest strength and greatest weakness, Mathieu hacks the FLN from the bottom up by giving his soldiers free rein to torture suspects until they turn on their immediate superior, until the inner circle is exposed; while the FLN's structure promotes secrecy and shields members, it's also inflexible and brittle by virtue of its design.

And then, after all that, the French lose the war anyway, because the Algerians don't want them there, FLN or no FLN.

The documentary feel of the film extends beyond the filmmaking techniques to the script itself. While the characterizations of the participants feels spot-on, it's not a film in which characters are fleshed-out: we see them as a documentary crew might, if the cameras were allowed to follow their subjects into secret meetings and prison cells and so on, but we don't necessarily know whether Col. Mathieu has a family life or Ali La Pointe had a dog as a small child or whatever. One can imagine a Hollywood version of this story stuffing a justifying monologue into somebody's mouth or cramming in a sympathetic scene of someone calling home; instead what we get is brutally, pitilessly objective (which, ironically, is probably why the movie has been accused of being biased over the years--we'll come back to that in just a moment), which has the odd effect of making the characters more human. We have characters who have a mix of admirable and loathsome traits: Mathieu is an honorable, likable soldier who lets his men waterboard random suspects and La Pointe is a passionate freedom fighter who'd gleefully shoot a random policeman in the chest on a third-party's assertion that the officer was receiving information from a snitch. Petit Omar (Mohamed Ben Kassen) is a lovable street urchin in the mold of a Gavroche or Artful Dodger--one who plants bombs and runs guns.

Algiers was banned for awhile in France and heavily-edited upon its initial releases in the United States and Britain, has apparently been a favorite of some insurrectionists, and has been accused of bias. This would be because the film is frequently dispassionate and equally condemnatory: it's not the least bit flattering or particularly sympathetic to the French occupation, but it's not kind to the FLN, either. Certainly a montage of Algerian suspects being tortured by the French reflects unpleasant truths; but the camera also lingers over the faces of dead and dying civilians at a pub and milk bar blown to bits by the FLN. And if the film doesn't turn the terrorists and murderers of the FLN into obvious and cartoonish villains, choosing instead to treat them without judgment as human beings who do what they do and allowing the audience to pass judgment, the film extends the same courtesy to the French police captain (Ugo Paletti) followed during the first half of the film and to Col. Mathieu during the second. There are those in the world who need things to be binary, black-and-white, good-and-evil, but reality rarely obliges and Algiers captures that reality starkly.

Which may be the most horrifying thing to contemplate when one begins thinking of La battaglia di Algeri as a commentary on contemporary events. There are differences: during the decolonization of the postwar years, France was on the wrong side of history, clinging onto occupied territories that they perhaps never had any business claiming in the first place. But what is universally true, and illustrated abundantly by the French Algerian experience, is that violence tends to be a self-consuming, self perpetuating vicious circle. The violence of the Algerian nationalist movements was self-justified, at least in part, by the 1945 Sétif massacre; the terrorism of the more violent Algerian nationalist parties (and let's be blunt--they were terrorists) provoked excessive crackdowns by the French--including incidents of torture and the execution of nationalist leaders who became movement martyrs--which became the self-justification for more violence from the nationalists. Eventually, the French won the battle because they had greater force, more flexibility than the nationalist movements (whose secrecy and underground nature left them incapable of doing much of anything other than planning violence) and ultimately the will to use it. And then they lost the war--the French use of force (including torture) so scandalized the world that not only did Algeria gain independence in 1962 despite French efforts, but in the meantime the French government completely imploded, ending the Fourth Republic.

Being a relatively realistic portrayal of events, Algiers doesn't offer a solution, and I don't have much of an answer, either. The film did make me all the more appreciative of the nonviolent movements of individuals like Gandhi and King, but that's not the route the Algerians chose nor the result that insurrectionists in Iraq and Afghanistan have chosen for us. Nonetheless, Algiers could easily be one of the most important films you add to your Netflix queue if you haven't seen it yet.


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