Monday, November 28, 2016

The Battle of Algiers (December 2 at 9:25 p.m. and December 3 at 6:35 p.m. at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

That the 1966 Italian classic THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS is still even exhibitable right now (of course, nowhere near as widespread as DOCTOR STRANGE) shows the US still possesses admirable freedom of expression (R.I.P. Fidel Castro). In light of the alleged War on Terror it's a little like TRIUMPH OF THE WILL screening at a
cinema near you in 1944 - although that comparison does injustice
to Gillo Pontecorvo's film. While the director's sympathies were
anti-imperialist, his feature takes no obvious sides and has no
heroes or villains in the customary Hollywood/propaganda sense.
And the casualties and atrocities are never less than human.

Ostensibly THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS depicts the uprising of the Arab-based Algerian independence movement - the FLN - against 130 years of French-colonial occupation in North Africa. Lensed in newsprint-gritty B&W where it happened, the neo-realist feature looks exactly like a documentary (opening titles emphasize "No newsreel footage") and recreates the dire move- and counter-move
of an urban-guerilla war and terrorist bombing campaign against foreign occupiers.

At the outset French soldiers, having tortured the location out of a captive, prepare to blast the stronghold of FLN holdouts. In flashback we see the FLN coalesce out of criminals and political
prisoners in the Casbah of the early 1950s. Right-wing French try to bomb the rioting Arabs into submission, but the FLN retaliates with bombs of their own (several explosions, particularly one at
a harness-racing track, jolt far more than any CGI effect).

The Governor of Algiers summons no-nonsense Colonial Mathieu (Jean Martin) to exterminate the FLN, which he proceeds to do, cell by cell - grueling, dirty work that leads to influential
types like Jean-Paul Sartre publicly supporting the rebels, and Mathieu, despite his hard-won victories, ending up with bloody hands and a guilty conscience.

While the French technically win the battle, Algeria became independent a few years later. The Algerian government subsidized Pontecorvo's making this feature, and FLN veterans both co-
produced and acted in the mostly non-pro cast.

A standard line is that THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS has tutored violent revolutionaries ever since, and one can't avoid noticing parallels with our present morass in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and
wherever else Washington dispatches the Marines in the name of Homeland Security. Absent from Pontecorvo's film is the factor of Islamic fundamentalism that racked Algeria with civil war in the
1990s; for that murderous epilogue, see the recent RACHIDA, and add Edward Zwick's much-criticized (but vindicated by 9/11) THE SIEGE, with Pontecorvo's film doubtlessly influenced.

THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS has been lately scrutinized and re-appraised in both the Pentagon and Tehran. Oh, to have that audience-reaction available to reprint here! It would indicate
the direction our "Mission Accomplished" battlegrounds at home and abroad are really heading. (4 out of 4 stars)

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