Battle of Algiers: Street by Street

THE REVOLT THAT STIRRED THE WORLD!

Today, Saadi Yacef is a 90-year-old Algerian Senator. Back in 1954, he was a young man who joined the National Liberation Front, the FLN, a socialist movement that launched the Algerian War against the country’s French occupiers. The movement grew and finally in 1962 France signed the accords that ended the war and gave Algeria its independence. Yacef was one of FLN’s military chiefs during the war and he wrote his memoirs of the armed struggle while being incarcerated by the French. That’s the account serving as inspiration for this classic film.

The Battle of Algiers begins in 1957 with French paratroopers moving in on Ali La Pointe (Brahim Hadjadj), one of the FLN’s guerrilla leaders. This comes at the same time as France is enjoying some success on the battlefield against the Algerian fighters. We’re taken back to 1954, the year the revolt began, and we see how the FLN leader Djafar (Yacef) takes in young Ali, who’s just a petty criminal. The charismatic Djafar begins educating Ali and showing him how their country could get rid of the French if only they organized properly and got rid of those standing in the way, all those who profit from the occupiers and can’t be trusted to fight in an insurgency.

Ali becomes an enthusiastic insurgent and the war begins. As the French realize that this revolt can’t be easily suppressed, they bring in a veteran from Indochina, Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin)…

Looking for more honesty
After the end of the war, Yacef joined the government of the new country and became its representative in the search for a good, international filmmaker to turn his story into a movie, funded by the new Algerian regime. He found the Italian Gillo Pontecorvo, who rejected the script Yacef gave him. Even if Pontecorvo and the Italian producers sympathized with the Algerian cause, they wanted the film to be more honest and not shy away from atrocities committed by both sides. Amazingly, that’s how the final screenplay turned out – we see French soldiers commit torture and murder and we see Algerian fighters bomb innocent people in Algiers, terrorism in the worst sense of the word.

The film is widely admired for its documentary-style approach, deliberately shot to make it look like chaotic news footage. The violence, rise of the FLN and street battles are all close to the truth, and the characters, mostly composites of real-life men and women, are certainly relevant. Yacef plays a fictional character based on himself and Colonel Mathieu was inspired by several French counterinsurgency officers; however, Ali La Pointe was a real-life FLN fighter. The film is incredibly effective in its visual style and direction, but that doesn’t mean Pontecorvo ignores the emotions of what he’s portraying. Indigenous drumming plays a part to create tension, and composer Ennio Morricone’s strings are impossible to ignore.

The filmmakers paint memorable portraits of the media-savvy, elegant Mathieu and how he’s contrasted with the simpler FLN figures, desperate to win their battle against Goliath.

It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking this is actually a documentary. Originally banned in France, various insurgent groups are said to have watched it as inspiration for how to use political violence. In 2003, the Pentagon had a screening with the intention of showing how the French won battles but lost the war; it’s no coincidence this was the year when the Iraq War began, another conflict dominated by urban warfare. Not a documentary – but urgently relevant far beyond the Algerian War.

The Battle of Algiers 1965-Italy-Algeria. 125 min. B/W. Produced by Antonio Musu, Yacef Saadi. Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. Screenplay: Franco Solinas. Cinematography: Marcello Gatti. Music: Ennio Morricone, Gillo Pontecorvo. Cast: Jean Martin (Colonel Mathieu), Saadi Yacef (Djafar), Brahim Hadjadj (Ali La Pointe), Tommaso Neri, Ugo Paletti, Samia Kerbash.

Trivia: Original title: La battaglia di Algeri.

Venice: Golden Lion.

Last word: “So many critics see ‘The Battle of Algiers’ as propaganda. But in the scenes of death, the same religious music accompanies both the French and Arab bombings. I am on the side of the Arabs, but I feel compassion for the French even if historically they were at fault. I do not say the French were bad, only that they were wrong. My subject is the sadness and laceration that the birth of a nation means in our time.” (Pontecorvo, The New York Times)

 

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