Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: The Battle of Algiers (1966)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly weekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #48 (tied with Historie(s) du Cinema)

When Sight & Sound Magazine conducts its decennial poll of the greatest films of all time, it does so by asking critics and directors (for separate lists) to rank their ten favorites, and the total number of votes per film creates the overall list. Therefore, the more overall mentions in the individual ballots a film gets, the higher on the list the film places. When films end up in ties (which, as has been evident in this series, ties make up a large portion of the list), it's often a random pairing, two or more films that thematically don't have much in common other than they are both considered among the greatest films ever made.

That being said, the pairing of Jean-Luc Godard's video-history of cinema Historie(s) du Cinema (1988-98) with Gillo Pontecorvo's rebellious The Battle of Algiers could not have been more sublime. Both films engage in cinema as a political tool, either as a way of looking back (Godard's film) or a challenge to the status quo (Pontecorvo's). The two together provide a fascinating glimpse into political cinema, and how film has grown into a powerful medium for expressing such concerns. However, where Godard's film is an application of the Marxist critical lens to film history, Pontecorvo's film is both a depiction of a conflict and a declaration of intent, laying the groundwork for polemic political films for decades to come.

The film covers a period between 1954 and 1957, during the Algerian struggle for independence from France. During this time, separate rebel cells coalesced into an organization known as the Casbah, and utilized guerrilla tactics in order to fight the French forces. The film begins from the perspective of petty thief Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), who is recruited into the Casbah by National Liberation Front (FLN) commander El-hadi Jafar (Saadi Yacef, himself a former member of the organization). The film also weaves in the perspectives of other characters, including street urchin-turned-FLN messenger Petit Omar (Mohamed Ben Kassen) and French paratrooper commander Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin, the only actor with previous experience).

Naturally, the film proved to be controversial upon its initial release: though it was released in Italy in September 1966 (and made its way to the United States the following year), it was banned in France until 1971 for its "anti-French" sentiments. Though the film's politics are somewhat murkier than that, it does take on a distinctly revolutionary voice, and in the process created a cinematic language for the struggle against colonial oppression.

More after the jump.

Pontecorvo, an Italian director, took on the film because of his own political beliefs, siding with the independence movement and opposing colonial rule. In making the film, Pontecorvo placed emphasis on veracity over conventional narrative. As a result, the film works more like a document of the struggle rather than a dramatic recreation or, like many films at the time, a traditional story told within the bellicose setting where the conflict is treated merely as a backdrop. That Pontecorvo chose to depict the action from both sides gives the film a semblance of parity, but the filmmaker betrays his allegiance throughout the film in his depiction of the French as brutal villains and the Algerians as a people pushed to their limits.

To achieve the effect of veracity, Pontecorvo borrows several notions from the Italian neorealism movement, earning it the distinction of being one of the movement's late-period masterworks. The film is structured to resemble a newsreel that would have played in theaters before the main film, cut with intertitles that set the time period and explain the circumstances leading to this moment. Similarly, Pontecorvo's camera doesn't move fluidly throughout the action, instead jerking and quickly panning to give it the appearance of a cameraman trying to capture the action (though it does not resemble the "found-footage" faux-documentaries that have gained popularity in the 21st century). And the filmmaker utilized a cast of almost entirely non-actors - Martin was the only actor that viewers would recognize - called from the streets of Algiers, many of whom had been active participants in the War for Independence. These elements combined to give the film the look of a documentary, removing the barriers created by fiction to directly engage the audience with both what is happening onscreen and in the real-world events that inspired the film.

Thematically, the film tackles the conflict with support for the revolutionaries, but not to the extent of creating a film that is wholly patriotic. The French are presented as being brutal and barbaric towards Algerian citizens (a fascinating reversal of the racial attitudes of the time); in a scene where Ali runs from a French policeman, a crowd of all-white French citizens grab him and beat him until the policeman can catch up. Yet even as Pontecorvo makes it evident that the colonizers are vicious, and that Algerian society under French rule is oppressive to the native population, it is unflinching in presenting the collateral damage both sides have caused. The Casbah's guerrilla tactics include assassinations and bombings, often in public places around other civilians. One of the film's most famous sequences involves the bombing of a cafe, killing mostly civilians of both French and Algerian descent. The camera doesn't shy away from depicting both the property and human damage, and in the moment the film studies the destruction without celebrating the cause behind it. This, ultimately, is a tragedy.

This is the film's greatest achievement: it actively and effectively transforms a city into a war zone, depicting urban warfare as a means of illustrating the greater effects of oppression and the struggle for independence. The film carries an urgency that had been lacking in many previous war films, but what sets it apart is its siding with "the other side:" those seeking to change the status quo rather than maintain it. Pontecorvo's willingness to present the struggle in all of its harsh, bloody, violent aspects makes the film stand apart from other such works at the time.

The Battle of Algiers has left a legacy that would prove hugely influential in the evolution of political cinema. Greek filmmaker Costa-Garves, for example, carved out a career making powerful political thrillers such as Z (1969), State of Siege (1972), and Missing (1982) in part because of the groundwork laid by Pontecorvo's film. Similarly, filmmakers as wide-ranging as Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, and Oliver Stone have cited the film as an influence, and many of their films bear the same hallmarks as Pontecorvo's. Even more incredibly, the film has been used by guerrilla forces and counter-terrorism units alike as a tool for how to fight a guerrilla war, lending the film a real-world importance that can hardly be ignored. Rarely can it be said that a film has had such a significant influence on world politics. Yet The Battle of Algiers did exactly that, cementing its status as a seminal work of cinema.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" 8 1/2 (1963)

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