Urban war and terror in `Algiers'

Noncombatants suffer in 1965 film

May 21, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In a smartly subtitled new print from Rialto Pictures, Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 masterpiece of ripped-from-events filmmaking, The Battle of Algiers, barrels off the screen and into the hearts and minds of audiences on bristling layers of political and moviemaking passion.

The movie is a marvel - bold, lucid and succinct (even at 123 minutes). It's also harrowing and moving in its depiction of noncombatant men, women and children caught between terrorism and counter-terrorism. The way Pontecorvo re-creates the rise and fall of the National Liberation Front in 1954-57 and the short-term success of the elite French paratroopers who cracked down on it, he lights up even mundane moments with a dialectical electricity.

Pontecorvo presents colonial liberation as a bloody given. He wants you to feel the impending freedom of the Algerian people exploding the cell-like structure of the NLF terrorists and surging through the steps and stones of the Casbah, culminating in 1962 with Algeria's independence. The director's most cunning stroke is to portray the French paratroop commander as a prescient man of action who understands better than anyone else the ebb and flow of the terrorists' success and their plan to sacrifice innocents to ignite a popular movement. The actor Jean Martin, slashingly decisive in every gesture and statement, makes this role embody the cruelty and seductiveness of military command.

Pontecorvo's belief that imperialism is doomed brings the film a bracing Olympian perspective that goes beyond propaganda. When the NLF decides to drive all drunkards and drug addicts from the Casbah, Pontecorvo doesn't package your feelings for you. He lets you pity people so impotent that the powerless can bully them. He even lets you experience nostalgia for a smiling, old-fashioned criminal who gets whacked because he won't sign up for the revolution.

The moviemaker fills out his leftist vision with so much affecting detail and newsreel veracity that his film acts as an energizer for true believers and conservatives alike. The director worked on the streets of Algiers and used nonactors in the Algerian roles. His producer, Saadi Yacef, a veteran of the NLF, plays the rebels' military ops chief (the role he held in real life) and Brahim Haggiag, an illiterate peasant, plays his deputy.

If you haven't seen the film in decades, you may find yourself remembering Yacef's alarming smoothness and Haggiag's laconic ardor, then reacting as you did the first time, peering at them ever-closer, as if microscopic inspection will disclose the secret to the fire they stoke onscreen. That's one of Pontecorvo's tactics. The performers' blazing intensity comes from his sense of their characters' historical importance.

Perhaps the most indelible presence belongs to the trio of women who plant bombs in three locations: a milk bar, a cafe and an Air France office. Especially memorable are the worn mother who fears she looks too Algerian to get past a checkpoint (she takes her son as a distraction) and the long-faced beauty who receives courtly treatment from some well-groomed drinkers. The power of their scenes comes partly from the flickers of apprehension in the bombers' faces and from Pontecorvo's acute appreciation of everyday life: teens acting cool around a jukebox, adults acting suave at a saloon.

Pontecorvo's direction is so miraculously attentive that when he shows the female bombers disguising themselves as Frenchwomen, the exquisite one is at her most appealing when we first see her "naked," without her headdress, before she gives herself a Western style. Even the tiniest supporting character, a rebel messenger boy, proves to be a revelation. Despite minimal screen time, he's at once inspirational and frightening: You realize that all his youthful energies have poured into his cause. He could turn out to be a hero or a stunted, puritanical villain.

The Battle of Algiers has remained the touchstone for bone-shaking documentary-style impact. And it has a superficial currency because it portrays an occupation force harassing Islamic people door-to-door and using torture and brutality to wrest information from them.

Does it actually apply to the contemporary Middle East? Perhaps the finest political filmmaker at work today, Paul Greengrass, who directed the brilliant Irish docudrama Bloody Sunday (2002), has acknowledged Pontecorvo's artistry but disavowed his message - "that even if you destroy the terrorists' cell, you can't stop the historical inevitability of their cause." To Greengrass, "it's a message from 1965. Then the world was filled with revolts against colonialism ... [but] today the major clashes are between two peoples trying to occupy the same bit of land. And armed nationalist campaigns, in conflicts over shared terrain, can only turn oppressed minorities into oppressive minorities."

Yet The Battle of Algiers has gained in historical stature what it has lost in relevance. It always captured the fervor of Algerian rebels. Seen today, it also brings back the manic-depressive mood swings of American and European leftists and students in the Vietnam-Watergate era, who theorized about remaking society amid the outrage over the West's corruption and its failed imperial or do-gooding forays into Africa, Asia and South America.

And in its you-are-still-there immediacy, The Battle of Algiers remains the rare political film that can raise big audiences to a fever pitch of revolutionary fury.

The Battle of Algiers

Starring Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin and Saadi Yacef

Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo

Rating Unrated

Released by Rialto Pictures

Time 123 minutes

Sun Score ****

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