TIFF Cinematheque

The Battle of Algiers

Gillo Pontecorvo

Battleofalgiers 01

Gillo Pontecorvo's gritty, stirring, and unabashedly anti-colonialist account of the urban war between battle-hardened French paratroopers and Algerian resistance fighters became an instant flashpoint for controversy and was banned in France until 1971.

The Algerian War has been the subject of many important films, from Alain Resnais' Muriel to Philippe Faucon's La Trahison, but none has the blistering immediacy of Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers. Based on the prison memoirs of Saadi Yacef, a leader of the National Liberation Front (FLN) — though Pontecorvo rejected Yacef 's proffered script as crude propaganda — Battle is a gripping chronicle of the bloody struggle of the anti-colonial Algerian nationalists who rose up against France's century-long rule in the 1950s. Frequently characterized as raw and documentary-like — the American distributor issued a disclaimer that it "contains NOT ONE FOOT of Newsreel or Documentary film" — Battle is as much an artful thriller as it is an insurrectionist textbook. Like Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (which greatly influenced Pontecorvo's neorealist approach, including the use of non-professional actors and location shooting), Battle relies on such traditional devices as suspenseful cross-cutting, propulsive music (by Ennio Morricone), and calculated typecasting to achieve its powerful effects.

The impartiality for which many critics have praised the film proves disputable, even dubious — does, for instance, the camera delectate in the close-ups of the imminent victims of a bombing (including an angelic boy enjoying an ice cream), or individuate them as innocent fatalities? At the other extreme, Pauline Kael egregiously claimed that "As a propaganda film, [Battle] ranks with Leni Riefenstahl's ... Triumph of the Will, and it's the one great revolutionary 'sell' of modern times." Regardless, The Battle of Algiers remains electrifying and ever-relevant: the ululations that ascend through the night sky over the Casbah to herald a new, independent nation in the film's stunning conclusion echo in the cries for freedom from tyranny during the Arab Spring.

JAMES QUANDT

Restored by Cineteca di Bologna and Istituto Luce — Cinecittà at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory, in collaboration with Surf Film, Casbah Entertainment Inc. and CultFilms.

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