Friday, January 27, 2017

Gillo Pontecorvo | معركة الجزائر (La battaglia di Algeri) (The Battle of Algiers)

a beautiful lie
by Douglas Messerli

Gillo Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas (writers), Gillo Pontecorvo (director) معركة الجزائر (La battaglia di Algeri) (The Battle of Algiers) / 1966, USA 1967

Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers is a carefully crafted fiction, based on real facts, pretending to be a documentary. It’s also a work in which writers Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas appear to be objective while basically siding with  the Algerian revolutionary cause and the National Liberation Front (FLN). While the film appears free from romanticizing the city and its people, it, nonetheless, still represents a slightly glorified notion of both. And because of these contradictions it still remains a powerfully watchable from today, some 50 years after its making.
       Originally, the film was to have been a psychologically based study of an American journalist who gradually loses his faith in the French rule. The role was to have been played, astoundingly, by Paul Newman. One supposes it might have been a film somewhat like the cinema versions of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. And later, with a different script by Saadi Yacef, it might have been more of a propagandistic work had Pontecorvo not rejected it. In short, the remarkable film that today exists is somewhat of a miracle.

What the director—after interviewing many figures involved and carefully capturing the jerky motions of the hand-held camera and the grainy textures of  newsreel footage—finally achieved is a kind of reportage that shows the vast cruelty of colonialism while refusing to downplay the equal cruelty of the terrorist methods of the revolutionaries.

       We sympathize, in other words, with the Algerian revolutionaries while at the same time are appalled by some of their methods, particularly the random bombings which so remind us of ISIS and Al Queda-inspired attacks in France, the US, and elsewhere. At one point we can only flinch with recognition when the FLN members demand a moral cleansing of Cashbah, particularly when we observe an elderly drunk being attacked by gangs of young boys who throw and pull him down a long set of stairs. 
     Yet, as critic Peter Matthews observes, we cannot help but agree with history, realizing the necessity of the Algerians to take back their own country from the often brutal French, particularly when the local police chief retaliates by bombing  a supposed address of a suspected murderer, killing innocent children, women, and men in the process. And, as Matthews suggests, the natives, far from being exoticized, in Pontecorvo’s work seem the be made of flesh and blood, while it is the ruling French police and wealthy elites who are pale and distant; the director hardly ever allows them even a close up, while we get beautiful details of each of the terrorists’ face. History, after all, is on their side.

          The only professional actor in The Battle of Algiers is the French stage actor, Jean Martin, the handsome, swaggering Colonel Mathieu, called in the quiet the rebellion. His methods are so convincingly real that even the Pentagon  played this film for their officers, presumably in order to help them to comprehend the revolutionary cells, wherein only groups of three knew of each other’s existence, since they were interlinked only by close friendships, and even when recruited are tested, as the young hero is, who is told to kill a policeman, but is given a gun with no bullets.
        How shocking this film must have seemed upon its first release. The French banned the film for five years, even after it had won several awards. Today, of course, several of the same methods—the use of both women and children to do bombings, the existence of sleeper cells, etc.—are writ large in newspaper and magazine articles. But at the time, what the public knew about terrorist methods had mostly to do with World War II underground activities. Pontecorvo’s film changed all of that.
       In fact, the unstated heroes of this film of the FLN, a the film makes clear, did not even win the fights of 1954 and 1957, and the film begins and ends in their betrayal by a tortured Algerian which results in the French discovery of the “heroes’” hiding place. Only a coda reveals the actual results of their activities, with the French being ultimately forced to give up their control of the country. The vast atrocities of the Algerian War, with the death of thousands on both side, in short, is presented as almost a footnote. The Battle of Algiers is presented simply as a trigger, a beginning of the end, which, in turn, further helps to objectify it from the messy truths hinted at in Resnais’ earlier Muriel and expressed in far more surreal terms in Mohammed Dib’s 1962 novel Qui se souvient de la mer and his so-called Algerian trilogy.
     Much has been made of this film’s ties to Rossellini’s neo-realist movies, Open City and Paisan, the latter of which influenced Pontecorvo to begin making films; but those cinemas, as great as they are, are far more straightforward about their narrative-based structures, while The Battle of Algiers is simply a more beautiful lie.

Los Angeles, January 27, 2017

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