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The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Battle of Algiers, The

Original title: La battaglia di Algeri

D: Gillo Pontecorvo / 121m

Cast: Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi, Samia Kerbash, Ugo Paletti, Fusia El Kader

In the late Nineties, I became aware of the Criterion Collection.  If, like me, you have a broad liking for cinema, then the movies in the Criterion Collection will capture your interest from the moment you first set eyes on them.  I can’t remember now which Criterion DVD was my first purchase, but there were several I had my eye on, including Seven Samurai (1954) and The Seventh Seal (1957).  I built up my collection, and then in 2004 I was browsing through their listings and I saw the title The Battle of Algiers.  Knowing nothing about it, I did some research and found it was about the Algerian War of Independence which took place between 1954 and 1957.  It was a period of recent history I knew nothing about, but as I discovered just how highly regarded it was, the movie jumped to the top of my “must-have” list.

However, despite my initial enthusiasm, it was a while before I actually bought the movie’s Criterion edition, and even longer before I finally sat down to watch it.  It didn’t take long before I was berating myself for being so tardy; the movie was astonishing.  It was like watching a documentary, its shooting style almost like the audience was eavesdropping on events as they happened; it was mesmerising.  And it was incredibly instructive and informative.  By the movie’s end I had a much clearer understanding of the Algerian struggle for independence, and France’s response to it.  It was shocking in many ways, and deliberately so.  The movie left no room for doubt: both sides had been capable of carrying out atrocities in their efforts to achieve their ends.  It was this fairness in presenting events that caught my attention as well, Pontecorvo’s decision to not take sides but to pass judgment when necessary on both the Algerians and the French.

Battle of Algiers, The - scene

Afterwards, like the really best movies (and all the rest in my Top 10), the movie stayed with me.  I also watched all the supplemental material on the Criterion DVD, something I rarely did back then, or do even now.  And the more I thought about it, the more I found myself wanting to watch the movie a second time.  And so, a couple of weeks later, I did, and even though I’d seen The Battle of Algiers so recently, it was like watching it for the first time.  The amateur cast (albeit largely dubbed) were amazing to watch, their personal experiences infusing their performances, and offering a trenchant contrast with Martin’s professional interpretation of the composite character Colonel Mathieu.  The soundtrack made more of an impression also, with Pontecorvo’s decision to include the sounds of warfare as punctuation in certain scenes proving a master-stroke.

Watching the movie again reinforced my belief that cinema can both educate and inspire as well as entertain.  Even though The Battle of Algiers is not an easy watch, and there are scenes that push the level of barbarity both sides employed, it works best as a document of those tumultuous times and the efforts each side made to win the conflict.  The documentary-style approach serves as a framework for the political and personal stories the movie focuses on, and provides a structured point of access for the casual viewer.  There’s so much information provided that some of it will most likely be missed but Pontecorvo’s mastery of the material ensures that every action, reaction or decision is clearly explained along with its consequences.

It’s a bold, complicated movie that, for its time, pulls no punches and offers, by turns, a committed yet dispassionate view of terrible events.  It’s no surprise the movie came under fire when it was released, but it’s a measure of its power that various bans have failed to dilute its effect over the years.

For me, it makes my Top 10 by virtue of its unflinching approach and the way it draws the viewer into a world that most of us can’t imagine.  After watching it for a second time, the movie stayed with me for an even longer time, and although I’ve only seen it a third time since then, the impression it made on me has lasted for twenty years, and that’s definitely an achievement worth noting.

Rating: 9/10 – superb recreation of a terrible period in Algerian and French history that doesn’t pull any punches or treat events shown with anything less than intelligence; a masterpiece of filmmaking that remains effective and relevant even today.