Monday, January 24, 2005

The Battle of Algiers Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, 1965

Have you seen that film Pepe le Moko? The one directed by Jules Dassin with Jean Gabin, set in France's Casbah? Both Gabin and the Casbah gain extreme heights of romanticism, washed in layers of mystery and sensuality. The dense compositions morph the Casbah into a dreamscape alive with hollows, secret passages, and intrigue. The chiaroscuro lighting frames Gabin as the singular protagonist, the last of a kind. Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers is also set largely in the Casbah. But his Casbah is hardly the same place as Dassin's.

Frankly, I was not in any way prepared for Algiers. The gritty, cinema verite quality of the camera work and film stock was de rigeur - the film is a textbook example of the quasi-documentary. What I was not prepared for was the surpassingly gritty subject matter. The Battle of Algiers stands as a document, to some extent preserving the history of guerrilla warfare between the Algerians and the French in the mid/late 1950's. On some level the film sympathizes with the Algerians - our "protagonists" (I use the term loosely) are largely Algerian, they're shot in a more humanistic style, they have personality when juxtaposed against the faceless French. But that isn't to say that the film is not at least somewhat balanced. First and foremost, this is a film about the atrocities of war, ethnocentrism, and a power-based bureaucratic system. The French air-raid the Algerians, destroying entire blocks of houses located within the Casbah. The Algerians respond with public bombings of cafes, bars, and airports. Which is more (or better yet, less) humane? To that question there is no answer. When a horse track is bombed by the Algerians, the French in the stands turn on an Algerian boy selling candy. They cry, "You'll pay for the others." The Slaughter of the Innocents, Part Deux.

Pontecorvo went to great lengths not to romanticize the war, or any of its participants. He rejected a first script written for Paul Newman. Newman was to be an imbedded journalist covering the war who eventually sympathizes with the Algerians, abandoning his journalistic duty. Pontecorvo then rejected a second script, written by Yacef Saadi, leader of the Algerian National Liberation Front (and on whose book the final script was based.) Pontecorvo maintained that Saadi's version was mere propaganda. Pontecorvo's camera (via cinematographer Marcello Gatti) is a mostly passive medium, recording events like the impartial machine it is. (Although, as mentioned before, some of the footage of the Algerians is more humanistic - the composition and lighting natural and not as a mechanistic and cold when compared to some of the footage of the French.) What Pontecorvo made was a dramatic film that could easily pass as a documentary - steadily, and increasingly, focused on the horror of war.

Why is the Casbah different in The Battle of Algiers? Replacing the dreamscape of escapism is a prison-like trap. The Casbah becomes a ghetto of sorts, a confines in which the Algerian nation is sequestered. And, unlike Dassin's film, there is no Pepe le Moko - no great liberator - to come free the people. The film ends - five years after the main action has taken place - with the freedom of Algiers, and the beginning of the Algerian nation. The narrator, and even the film itself, is baffled as to how this liberation occurred. And rightly so - the liberation is not the point. The point is the war and turmoil-fraught path that lead to the Algerians' liberation. The point is to show what happened, so it need not happen again.


Blogger Quack Corleone said...

Great review. I've been wanting to see the film for some time. You broke the camel's back.

25 January, 2005 23:39  

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