[Marxism] Film, "The Battle of Algiers" playing in Cambridge, MA

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Sat Feb 28 12:10:56 MST 2004

Below are two reviews (respectively from the
Boston Globe and the Boston Phoenix) of the 
1965 film, "The Battle of Algiers", which is currently 
playing at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge.

Jim F.

The Battle of Algiers

'65 classic 'Battle of Algiers' still electrifies and challenges 

By Ty Burr
Boston Globe
Published: 02/27/2004 

A Muslim country seething with discontent. A Western occupying force
using strong-arm tactics to root out a terrorist army. Women with bombs
in their handbags. Tanks in the streets.

Contrary to what you're thinking, this is Algiers in the mid-1950s. The
film is Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 classic "The Battle of Algiers," an
electrifying, ground-level re-enactment of Algeria's struggle for
independence from its French masters. For years the Pentagon has screened
this film to military personnel headed for insurgent hotspots -- it was
shown there as recently as August -- and if you go to see the gleaming
new print at the Kendall Square starting today, you'll quickly grasp why.
"Battle" is cauterizing in its evenhandedness, showing the vengeful
madness and the passionate reason on both sides of the conflict. Nearly
four decades old, it's the first must-see movie of 2004.

Pontecorvo came up through the Italian Neo-Realism boom of the postwar
years, but he was first and foremost a documentararian. Both strains
serve him well in "Battle." His camera is everywhere: in the torture
cells of the French Foreign Legion; in the Casbah meeting rooms of the
Algerian resistance organization, the National Liberation Front (FLN); at
checkpoints; on rooftops; in cafes when the bombs go off. At times you
have to pinch yourself to remember that every frame of the film was

The casting, too, is realistic enough to shed blood. As central figure
Ali la Pointe, a rangy street hustler who becomes a committed FLN
fighter, Brahim Haggiag was picked from the crowd by the director, but
Saadi Yacef, as Ali's recruiter Jafar, fought in the real uprising and
wrote the memoirs on which Pontecorvo and co-writer Franco Solinas based
their script. French actor Jean Martin was tapped to play the army
leader, Colonel Mathieu, for his resemblance to the dapper, self-aware
commander of the real French forces, Jacques Massu: It took an actor to
play an actor.

Violence escalates in "Battle" with a horrible tit-for-tat logic -- an
execution leads to an assassination campaign against French policemen
which leads to the cops bombing the Casbah which leads to the FLN bombing
racetracks and airports -- and only Mathieu, a theoretician of
realpolitik, is willing to articulate the hard line. "Should France stay
in Algeria?" he coolly asks a hostile reporter. "If you answer yes, you
must accept all consequences."

Those consequences include torture, shown here without a blink. Mathieu
may be unflappable, but his men aren't, and their anger is stoked by
fresh memories of losing French Indochina. Nor does "Battle" idealize the
FLN. One of its leaders may tell Ali that "terrorism is useful as a
stunt," but that means nothing to a French teenager killed by a bomb, and
when the FLN mounts a moral cleanup of the Casbah and a group of kids
subsequently hound a drunk to his death, you see the mob mentality that
lurks even in the urge for freedom.

As "Battle" shows, the terrorist cells were eventually snuffed out, but
mass protests several years later led to Algerian independence in 1962.
The final shots of the film aren't so much a celebration of liberation as
an acknowledgment of historical inevitability. The filmmakers are too
fatalistic, or exhausted, to join the party.

Too much can be made of parallels with recent events in Iraq (for one
thing, the French didn't go in with the stated purpose of unseating a
dictator but were already there) but the chafing, mutually
uncomprehending collision of Western occupiers and Muslim occupied has
never been captured with such dispassionate, thrilling clarity. "The
Battle of Algiers" is a thinking person's action film in which there are
winners -- but no heroes.

Marxist poetry
Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers

The Battle of Algiers (1965)
Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. Written by Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas.
With Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi, Samia Kerbash, Ugo
Paletti, and Fusia El Khader. In French with English subtitles (117
minutes). At the Kendall Square. 

Writing admiringly about The Battle of Algiers, Pauline Kael called its
director, Gillo Pontecorvo, "the most dangerous kind of Marxist, a
Marxist poet." She was right: this gripping 1965 movie, which may have
invented the docudrama form, has been used as a training film by
organizations around the world that think of themselves as freedom
fighters — and by their opponents. It’s hard to think of a political film
that’s proved more effective since Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the
Will. Set in Algiers between 1954 and 1960, both inside and outside the
Casbah (the Arab ghetto that Julien Duvivier’s romantic 1937 melodrama
Pépé le Moko made famous to international audiences), Pontecorvo’s movie
chronicles the struggle of the Algerian people for independence from
their French masters. Its collective hero, the National Liberation Front,
is embodied in the figure of Ali-la-Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), a petty
thief who’s radicalized in prison by the execution of an NLF inmate. But
its spokesman, in a brilliant strategic move by Pontecorvo and co-writer
Franco Solinas, is Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), the imported French
officer in charge of the counter-revolutionary campaign, who phrases the
Marxist arguments that his enemies act out by instinct.

Pontecorvo and Solinas don’t stoop to caricature to build their case
against colonialism. Martin is not only articulate but elegantly
civilized, and none of his men is a brute. When they capture members of
the revolutionary cells, these captives are tortured with the cool
indifference that accompanies professional efficiency. Pontecorvo’s
camera barely takes in the torturers; it’s the faces of their victims
he’s interested in — especially the hollowed, bony, sad-sack countenance
of the man pummeled into giving up Ali’s hiding place. (Most of the
picture is a flashback from the moment when Mathieu’s men corner Ali and
three companions in the Casbah.) That’s also the case in the horrifying
scene where a French bomb blows up a crowded apartment house and most of
the bodies retrieved from the rubble are those of children. And the movie
treats the racism of the white Algerians almost casually, as an
inevitable consequence of the colonial system (a non-Marxist observer
like Orwell might have depicted it in precisely the same way), refusing
to use it to dehumanize them.

In the centerpiece sequence, the NLF sends three women out of the Casbah
to pick up bombs and deposit them in crowded public places — the Air
France terminal, a café, a milk bar where young people go to dance.
Removing their veils, the women dress and make themselves up Western
style so they can slip past the checkpoints manned by French policemen,
and in this almost silent scene you can see what it costs them to violate
their Muslim traditions. As each woman reaches her target, she looks
around at the people she knows will be killed or maimed by the bomb
inside her handbag — like a toddler at the milk bar licking an ice-cream
cone. The three women’s faces are remarkably expressive, though they hold
themselves absolutely in check. After they’ve departed, Pontecorvo
lingers on these bystanders moving inexorably and unknowing to the last
moment of their lives — the dancing teenagers, the laughing bartender.
His acknowledgment that revolutionary action claims real victims, not
just statistics, tears you apart, because he’s employed all his
filmmaking skill to make the case that terrorism is the one of the few
effective resources open to the NLF. Watching The Battle of Algiers — and
especially this sequence — in today’s political climate doesn’t mitigate
its power; if anything, it’s more disturbing now than ever.

When Mathieu finds Ali, the last of the NLF leaders to elude him, one of
his colleagues remarks that at last they’ve beheaded the tapeworm,
picking up on Mathieu’s own metaphor for the NLF from earlier in the
film. It’s 1958. But two years later, revolutionary activity flares up
again, first in the mountains and then in the city, and though an aerial
pan across the nighttime Casbah reveals no one, we hear the Arab slogans
of the men and the strange, shrill bird cries of the women from every
corner. By 1962, Algeria has won her independence. The tapeworm turns out
to be a phoenix.

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