Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Battle of Algiers


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 4/6/09.


The 1954-1962 Algerian war over Algeria's independence from France was a tumultuous period in the longstanding tension between France and Algerians for more than a hundred years ever since France invaded the region in the 1930s. The war ended with Algeria's independence in 1962 with the French dealing with defeat. After a few years following Algeria's independence, the war was a sore spot for the French where in 1966, Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo made a film about one of the most infamous battles in the city of Algiers in a cinema verite style. The film would be considered to be one of the greatest films of the 1960s entitled La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers).

Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo with a script he co-wrote with Franco Solinas, La Battaglia di Algeri tells the story of the battle itself along with the beginnings of the war right till its climatic battle in 1960 at Algiers. Told in a documentary style in black-and-white that recalls the Italian neo-realist movement of the late 1940s and Russian cinema. Getting perspective from both Algerians and European settlers, it's a film that takes a very in-depth look into one of the most infamous battles in world history. Starring Brahim Hagiag, Jean Martin, and Saadi Yacef.

It's 1957 as an Algerian is being forced to wear a French army uniform in order to lead the French to find National Liberation Front (FLN) leader Ali La Pointe (Brahim Hagiag). He had only been a part of the movement ever since joining three years ago following an altercation with the police over a street scam where he later assaulted a young Frenchman. After being in prison for five months, Ali becomes part of the FLN after being recruited by El-Halid Jafar (Saadi Yacef). In 1956, a series of attacks on policemen forces the police to strike back while barricading parts of the Casbah area filled with Algerians. During one night, officers planted a bomb at a home at the Casbah area that killed many people.

The Algerians strike back by having three women planting bombs in various places outside of the Casbah area filled with the French in Algiers. The attacks were successful with many casualties made. On January 1957, Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin) arrives with an army to plan attacks and interrogations to find the leaders of the FLN. With an upcoming strike, Ali talks to a FLN leader who reveals that their cause has gained the attention of the United Nations. Ali wants to attack but instead, has to do nothing and let the French do their week-long strike. The strike intensifies by its last day with several of its leaders captured and such. With Mathieu taking charge, he goes inside the Casbah with his troops where he eventually captures Jafar while also making a final attack to win the battle. Unfortunately, a huge protest and demonstration movement in 1960 would mark trouble for the French which would lead to the Algeria's independence in July of 1962.

The film is certainly a provocative yet eerie take on the idea of war. Yet, it's an ugly take on war as director Gillo Pontecorvo goes deep inside to the Casbah area to see how the battle is played out. The film is really about war's ugliness and how both the French and Algerians do horrific things to each other. Though the Algerians have reasonable motives over their demand for independence, how they did it through guerilla tactics and even planting bombs in various buildings seems like they were committing terrorism. The French of course, had to respond but what they did in order to interrogate people and such through torturous methods weren't honorable either. It seems like Pontecorvo and co-screenwriter Franco Solinas decided to make a film that isn't a traditional war film. Especially in creating dramatic sequences involving the idea of the Algerian independence and Col. Mathieu planning his own methods of attack in order to give the audience an idea of the motives of these two factions.

The script is based on several accounts and stories from various people, notably Saadi Yacef's memoir, who plays a fictional version of himself as El-hadi Jafar. Yet, there's no clear protagonist as it's all based on several characters as it's really about the battle. For the film's direction, Pontecorvo decides to create the film as if he's doing a documentary of sorts but in a cinema verite style. Along with the use of the Italian neo-realist style, the film is very engaging into going inside the Casbah area and being inside buildings where the audience knows something is going to happen. In the scenes that involve bombs, there's a level of suspense that Pontecorvo creates and when they're dropped in their locations. The audience knows what's to come but what happens afterwards is horrifying.

Pontecorvo goes deep inside to the locations where the bombs happen and it's shocking. The horrors of people dying and wounded, whether it's Algerian or European is truly an atrocity to watch. By the time the French take over for the battle into the Casbah, it's clear that Mathieu's method of torture and abuse is just as bad. Yet, he is a man that has respect for the opposition offering leaders the chance to surrender and be fair. The other two characters that often get attention are Jafar and Ali La Pointe. The former is the main leader who is smarter while finding some respect for Mathieu over his tactics and mercy. Then there's the younger La Pointe who is more of a rebel who is willing to continue the fight, even during the week-long strike of early 1957 when he isn't supposed to. What Pontecorvo creates is a film that truly exemplifies the spirit of guerilla warfare and all of its chaos and horror. The result is a film that is truly relevant to this day about war, terrorism, and retaliation in all of its troubles.

Cinematographer Marcello Gatti does fantastic work with the film's black-and-white photography along with its hand-held camera movements that isn't shaky nor fast. Instead, it's very steady and captures everything that goes on without swift movements only to slowly capture everything while creating some fantastic shots from Pontecorvo's amazing vision. Notably the exterior shots of Algiers from the beach to the upper exterior look from the Casbah. Gatti's work is truly phenomenal with some grainy camera work that looks realistic in the verite style as well as something that is beautiful. Editors Mario Morra and Mario Serandrei does excellent work with the film's straightforward cutting with little bits of jump cuts to keep the film's rhythm going. Though the pace is a bit slow, it works to create the idea of suspense and events that goes on during the battle.

Production/set designer Sergio Canevari does great work with the film's art direction in recreating the homes at the Casbah to the more clean looks like bars and diners at the European section of Algiers. Very detailed to what it looked like in the 1950s, it shows the contrast between the downtown section of Algiers and the gritty look of the Casbah area. The sound work by technician Omar Bouksani is excellent in capturing the tense atmosphere of war and the chaos that surrounds in the different areas of Algiers. The film's score by Gillo Pontecorvo and the legendary Ennio Morricone is wonderful in playing up to the film's drama and suspense. From the chugging rhythms of the suspense in the bomb scenes to the cadence-style drumming of the battles. The film mixes the Algerian music filled with flutes and such along with orchestral flair of Morricone to play along the tragic consequences and sadness.

The casting is mostly small with memorable roles from Mohamed Ben Kassen as the little boy Omar, Samia Kerbash as one of the female bombers, and Saadi Yacef in a small but memorable role as El-hadi Jafar. Brahim Hagiag is excellent as Ali La Pointe, the rebellious young man who becomes one of the leaders of the FLN as he takes on many risks only to realize how important the revolution is without violence. Jean Martin is brilliant as Col. Mathieu, the cruel yet compassionate general who is intelligent though arrogant in his idea of success towards the battle against the people of the Casbah.

Released in 1966, the film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival that year along with an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film shortly after while 2 years later, received nominations for Screenplay and Direction. Though the film was widely acclaimed, it courted a lot of controversy over its subject matter. Notably in France where it was banned for five years while the film was re-edited for British and American releases over its torture scenes. In Argentina, the film proved to be very popular with the military during the years of political upheaval in the country. In 1999, the film was restored where it received an official U.S. release in its uncensored version in late 2003. The film would be shown in various art house theaters to great acclaim but it's most famous screening was at the Pentagon in 2003 for military and political leaders during the Iraq War.

La Battaglia di Algeri is a brilliant yet harrowing film from the late Gillo Pontecorvo that is powerful and relevant to the situations of the Iraq War. Audiences who enjoy war films will be shocked to see this as a film that is more eerie than most war films with its verite style and harsh realism. For art house and foreign film fans, this film is truly essential as it's one of the best films of the 1960s. It's not an easy film to watch for its violent and meditative pacing but overall, it's unique visual style along with its intense score makes it worth watching. In the end, La Battaglia di Algeri is a powerful yet haunting masterpiece from Gillo Pontecorvo.

(C) thevoid99 2011

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