Reviews and notes
In banning for so long Italian director Pontecorvo's film (subsidised and supervised by the Algerian authorities), the French Government showed considerably less magnanimity towards its former colony than the Algerians displayed towards their former occupiers. For the most powerful - and ultimately the most persuasive - thing about BATTLE OF ALGIERS
is its extraordinary fair-mindedness, its scrupulous refusal to simplify or romanticise the moral and practical choices on either side of the barricades.
The pre-credits sequence shows a group of embarrassed paratroopers gathered round an old Arab (whom they have just tortured into betraying Ali la Pointe's whereabouts) and endeavouring to cheer him up - to re-establish a common humanity - with cigarettes, coffee and some timid back-slapping; suddenly realising what he's done, the old man tries to fling himself out of the window; the soldiers hit him around again, then shyly proffer another cigarette. And Pontecorvo (though leaning slightly towards caricature in his portrayal of the pieds noirs
) never allows the combatants on either side of what was, inevitably, a dirty war to shed an ounce of their human complexity. When an Algerian girl plants her bomb in a teenage dance-hall, she and the camera scan her victims' faces with a puzzled concern; for a moment, the tension abates as the youngsters run into the street to examine the debris from a nearby explosion, only to decide that it's nothing to do with them and return to the dance, as if existentially willing - and deserving - their deaths.
Nowhere is this attempted objectivity more telling than in the characterisation of Colonel Mathieu: attacked for his use of torture by a liberal-minded press corps, he quietly tells them that they are posing the wrong question, and asks instead if they think the French should remain in Algeria, then logically demonstrates that his distasteful methods follow inevitably from their own affirmative reply. Informing the press of the death of Ben M'Hidi, who has stood firm under torture, Mathieu delivers what is virtually a eulogy, betraying more respect for his 'worthy' enemy than for the rich colonialists whose interests he is ordered to protect.
Greed is the real villain of the piece, and it is present in the Casbah's opium dens and whoremongers as well as in the urban villas; but like all the other causes of the war, it is stated visually rather than verbally. The overcrowded Casbah buildings, the inequitable living standards of French and Algerians silently attest the need for change, though again and again one is made to feel that the strongest factor in the Algerians' struggle is a desire for dignity, and for a dignity based on their own traditions and not imported manners. One of the most poignant scenes shows three Casbah women 'turning themselves white' in order to infiltrate the luxury bars.
Pontecorvo's techniques enforce his arguments, the unusual focal lengths of the black-and-white photography adding, as much as the rapid close-up cutting, to the sense of urgency and claustrophobia. Only on the soundtrack does BATTLE OF ALGIERS
, a model of how a propaganda film should be made, betray where its emotional loyalties lie. Not just in the stirring eloquence of its music, but above all in the collective wailing of the Algerian women, mocking the paratroopers with an eerie wall of sound that creates a strangely menacing form of passive resistance.
-Jan Dawson, Monthly Film Bulletin, April 1971.
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