Cineastes regularly talk of Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers with a reverence that is reserved only for the rarest of films. It is remarkable how one as unsettlingly political as this pulled off such a coup in the world of art and culture that is usually so tenaciously apolitical.
Then again, it was never enough just to describe Algiers as a film that epitomised a phase in global history where mass movements and collective action sought to change the shape of the old colonial world. Released in 1966, Algiers came at a moment when the concept of culture itself was gaining new meanings. Culture, in the 1960s, no longer embodied the sense of high-and-mighty refinement. It had migrated from the patrician sanctuaries to the domain of everyday life and lower-class dissent. The success of Algiers in a way came to represent this shift.
Many artists and filmmakers in the period after the Second World War had turned to the disenfranchised for creative inspiration. Italian director Pontecorvo and co-writer Franco Solinas turned to the burgeoning anti-colonial movement. The film takes as its subject a particularly violent episode in Algeria's revolutionary war against French colonialism. Desperate for independence, Algerian rebels have taken to terrorism. Snipers shoot and women plant bombs in trendy locales visited by French settlers. The French army responds mercilessly and indiscriminately, hunting down every member of the insurgent cells.
Algiers is an extraordinary feat in neo-realism, obliterating the distance between reality and representation. Like the films of other neo-realists like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, the film's use of non-professional actors and real locations in the Casbah is remarkable enough. But the documentary-like veracity it achieves through its use of masses of people and a newsreel style is uniquely spectacular.
Moreover, no other film captures as authentically and reasonably the ethical contradictions of human existence (and the colonial mindsets). On one side is Ali La Pointe (Haggiag), the rebel leader, deserving our utmost empathy yet whose modus operandi is downright insufferable. On the other stands Colonel Mathieu (Martin), a menacing disciplinarian whose logic and grasp of the situation is uncomfortably impressive.
More than anything else, though, Algiers is stunning for its prescience and earth-shattering social significance. The world may have changed a lot since the Algerian War. But somehow in that struggle, as depicted in this film, are trapped all the predicaments of modernity - nationalism, inequality, imperialism, fundamentalism, and terrorism. American officials would not otherwise be screening the film at the Pentagon.
Watching Algiers is a riveting experience that irrevocably binds its viewers to the power of cinema and inducts them into newer world-views. Catch it next Friday at the Alliance Francaise, Tripureshwor. 4241163
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo.
Cast: Brahin Haggiag, Jean Martin, Saadi Yacef.
1966. 117 min. In French and Arabic, with English subtitles.