“How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.” (quoted in Reid 2005: 110)
The film thus seems to have acquired a new relevance in the twenty-first century. More recent commentators tend to single out the sequence during which the FNL embarks on a mission to clean up the casbah by purging it of drunks, prostitutes and gangsters, wondering about the ‘islamic’ aspect of these actions. And yet, there is no Qur’an during the wedding ceremony organised by the FNL, and religion is at best marginally present. More directly connected to twenty-first-century concerns is the chilling depiction of torture, though Matthew Evangelista reminds us that the reality was much worse: many were tortured to death by the French, or killed as traitors by the FNL. And women were equally subject to violence, including sexual violence (Evangelista 2011: 60–1).
Indeed, one of the more intriguing aspects of the film has to do with the participation of women. In the war women were unusually important: because of the repressive French policies, traditional women were suddenly freer to move in public space than men (Evangelista 2011: 54). But while some critics are intrigued by the fairly faithful depiction of women, others argue their role is underplayed. The scene in which three women transform themselves into Western-looking women and go off to plant bombs is particularly contested in this respect. Pontecorvo cut their dialogue, which works well for the atmosphere of the scene, but inadvertently removes speaking roles from women, turning them into fairly clichéd images of female impenetrability. Likewise, the film does not entirely acknowledge the role of Drif (Zohra Drif-Bitat), the woman who is being captured alongside Ali: after Yacef (Jaffer in the film) was arrested, she had assumed much of the leadership (Evangelista 2011: 49).
Much of the film’s power stems from the ways in which it pretends to be a documentary and yet is not. Pontecorvo used black-and-white film stock, natural (though often filtered) light, telephoto lenses and handheld cameras, and achieved a grainy look by printing new negatives from the positive images, and then making new, rougher positive images from those. All these strategies give the film somewhat of a newsreel look, enough that the US release of the film proudly claimed that ‘not even one foot of newsreel or documentary film is included in this picture’ (see Harrison 2007a: 389–90). And yet, maybe more important are the ways in which the film is not a documentary. Above all, the camera can go places a newsreel camera never could: into Ali’s hiding place, following the women who plant the bombs, being in the middle of shootouts. Moreover, many of the camera positions (from the bottom, from high above) are carefully set up (Harrison 2007a: 392–3). The film thus makes the experience as emotional and sensational as possible, often with the implied spectator in the middle of the action.
The film’s emotional impact is significantly helped by the music composed by Ennio Morricone (maybe better known for composing the music for Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns), with input from Pontecorvo himself. From Bach’s St Matthew Passion, used in the opening sequence with the tortured man, to Bach-influenced music accompanying scenes of other victims of torture and bomb blasts, to the suspenseful action music that sets in when the French soldiers disembark in the casbah in order to arrest Ali, to local music, to powerful uses of silence, the film works on us emotionally (see Forgacs 2007: 361–2).
Stylistically, the film is thus in conversation with Italian neo-realism (maybe especially with Paisan (1946) and Rome, Open City (1945), but also with revolutionary cinema, especially the cinema of Eisenstein, where the masses likewise become the hero, and where personal psychology does not drive the plot, either. Pontecorvo is even indebted to Eisenstein’s concept of graphic conflict, for instance in the prison scenes (Mellen 1973: 38). At the same time, the film is related to popular cinema, such as Pépé le Moko (1937), which was also set in the casbah (and in which Yacef acted as an extra). Maybe more importantly, the film became crucially important for filmmakers committed to a revolutionary, ‘third cinema’ aesthetic, as well as to Western filmmakers invested in political cinema, from Costa Gavras, to Oliver Stone to Ken Loach.
Battle of Algiers won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for three Oscars. The film was a popular success in Algeria, though Yacef recounts that there were some objections to the film’s action being limited to Algiers, not least since much of the war happened in the countryside (Harrison 2007b: 412). Popular mythology, perpetuated in the trailer of the film’s American rerelease, as well as by some of the scholarship on the film, has it that the film was banned in France. As it is, unlike other films about the Algerian war, the film was never officially censored or banned in France. The French delegation walked out of the screening at the Venice Film Festival, and criticism mostly remained negative in the 1960s (the film was not recognised as film art). But in the 1970s, many of the commentaries on the film became positive, though lobbying from groups of veterans and pieds noirs (former white inhabitants of Algeria repatriated to France) attempted to ban the film, making it a fulcrum for discussions about censorship practices (see Caillé 2007). Precisely because the film represents more than one point of view, because it refers both to a specific war and yet speaks to other political situations, because it presents such a powerful documentary fiction, this fortuitous collaboration is able to sustain all these debates.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Italy, Algeria. Production Company: Casbah Films, Igor Film. Director: Gillo Pontecorvo. Producers: Saadi Yacef, Antonio Musu. Screenwriters: Franco Solinas, Gillo Pontecorvo (based on an idea by Saadi Yacef). Cinematographer: Marcello Gatti. Editors: Mario Serandrei, Mario Morra. Music: Ennio Morricone, Gillo Pontecorvo. Cast: Brahim Haggjag (Ali La Pointe), Jean Martin (Colonel Mathieu), Saadi Yacef (Elhadi Jaffar), Samia Kerbash (Fatiha), Fusia El Kader (Hassiba), Ugo Paletti (The Captain), Mohammed Ben Kassen (Le Petit Omar).]
Irene Bignardi, ‘The Making of the Battle of Algiers’, Cineaste, Vol. 25, No. 2, 2000, pp. 14–22.
Patricia Caillé, ‘The Illegitimate Legitimacy of Battle of Algiers in French Film Culture’, Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3, 2007, pp. 371–88.
Matthew Evangelista, Gender, Nationalism, and War: Conflict on the Movie Screen, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox, with commentary by JeanPaul Sartre and Homi K. Bhabha, New York, Grove Press, 2004.
David Forgacs, ‘Italians in Algiers’, Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3, 2007, pp. 350–64.
Nicholas Harrison, ‘Pontecorvo’s “Documentary” Aesthetics’, Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3, 2007a, pp. 389–404.
Nicholas Harrison, ‘An Interview with Saadi Yacef’, Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3, 2007b, pp. 405–13.
Peter Matthews, ‘The Battle of Algiers: Bombs and Boomerangs’, in booklet accompanying The Battle of Algiers, DVD, Criterion, 2004, pp. 6–11.
Joan Mellen, Filmguide to The Battle of Algiers, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1973.
Donald Reid, ‘Re-viewing The Battle of Algiers with Germaine Tillion’, History Workshop Journal, Issue 60, Autumn 2005, pp. 93–115.
Murray Smith, ‘The Battle of Algiers: Colonial Struggle and Collective Allegiance’, Iris, Vol. 4, Fall 1997, pp. 105–24.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.