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Review: 'Battle of Algiers' incredibly powerful

1965 film remains prescient

By Barbara Keenlyside

'The Battle of Algiers'
  • Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo; written by Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas
  • The Criterion Collection
  • 3 discs
  • 1965; 117 minutes

    (CNN) -- "The Battle of Algiers" -- the groundbreaking 1965 film about the uprising that led to the 1962 independence of Algeria -- is back in a new DVD edition, and it reaches across nearly 40 years to grab you with its relevance to the war on terror today.

    The Criterion Collection picked the perfect moment to release a DVD package of this gripping and haunting film. It's loaded with extras, including a discussion with former head of counterterrorism Richard Clarke -- who talks about the lessons "Battle of Algiers" teaches about war in Iraq and winning the hearts and minds of a people.

    "The Battle of Algiers" is about the insurrection for independence from France, and it's as fresh and suspenseful as anything before or since.

    It's 1957, and the anti-colonialist independence movement is stirring. An uneducated petty street thief comes under the wing of a small, dedicated cell of revolutionaries.

    The film tracks his awakening to the injustices suffered by Algerians under French rule and his growing into a leader of the movement. It details the tactics of the revolutionaries: small cells, secrecy and the evolution of resistance into terrorism. A charismatic former Resistance fighter is sent from France to lead a force to crush the resistance, and the battle begins.

    Director Gillo Pontecorvo -- an Italian who was a leader in the Resistance against Italian fascism -- used local Algerians as actors and a gritty, grainy and immediate style. The jumpy camera looks like it's getting knocked around in the milling crowd, and results in scenes that look so real that people in 1965 had to be told the film wasn't a documentary.

    Pontecorvo explains in an interview with the renowned Palestinian intellectual Edward Said -- who has since died -- that he wanted his film to be black-and-white and to feel like the newsreels of the time. When you watch some of those, it's impossible to tell if they're real or if they're from Pontecorvo's film.

    The director says he resisted pressure to use professional actors: He wanted the faces to convey truth. And the faces are so compelling you can't take your eyes off them.

    The Algerians he chose for the film had only recently suffered through the war for independence. The real intellectual leader of the revolutionaries in Algiers plays himself in the movie, and his experiences were used for the plot.

    In one scene, three Algerian women solemnly remove their headscarves; silently cut and dye their giveaway long, dark hair; put on lipstick, blouses and skirts and, finally, pick up their pretty handbags.

    Each woman is waved through a checkpoint, as the other Algerians are roughly patted down, and goes to her appointed destination, her handbag holding a bomb. The camera pans the beautiful and innocent faces of the teenagers, couples, businessmen and toddlers who each woman knows are about to die.

    Urban warfare

    September 11 awakened Americans to the bitter truth Pontecorvo talks about. Watching the film today, Iraq, Israel, the Palestinians, bin Laden, the Taliban and Abu Ghraib come to mind in the inevitable tit-for-tat escalation of violence.

    Insurgents kill police indiscriminately; French police bomb a terrorists' safe house and kill scores of women and children.

    The Islamic revolutionaries call for the end of drunkenness and prostitution -- and taking their cue, children torment a poor stumbling drunk.

    Innocent Arabs are beaten by Europeans or arrested; the French routinely use torture to find out names and hiding places.

    The sounds of Muslim women's eerie ululating, chants of insurgents and nighttime shots of the Muslim Quarter, or Casbah, sprawling over the hills evoke the mood of suspense and burgeoning violence. The film's music never overshadows, it just plays inside the scenes like a beating heart.

    The French army responds with murderous force against the shape-shifting enemy who kills, then vanishes in the byzantine alleys. These urban warfare scenes could be video from Falluja or Sadr City.

    Both sides are evenhandedly treated -- every case of innocents slaughtered is equally tragic. As Oliver Stone says in one of the interviews with directors accompanying the film: "Grief has no nationality" in "Battle of Algiers."

    'Not so many certainties'

    But in the end, the film comes down on the side of the Algerians and their struggle for independence.

    "Battle of Algiers" would not be easy to make today, the directors say in their interviews.

    Asked why he stopped making political films such as this one, which gained such stature and acclaim, Pontecorvo gives many reasons. The last he offers is: "There are not so many certainties today."

    The movie is in French and Arabic with English subtitles. Its violence is nothing more than what you see on the TV news, but the movie transcends these events and transforms them.

    I was daunted by all the extras in the package and thought I'd get tired of it all. But I watched the three DVDs over a couple of days and found everything absorbing. (I skipped the bit about the making of the subtitles, but I'll probably watch even that, too.)

    Said's interview and a later one with Pontecorvo, meeting the people who worked on the movie and how the Algerians were chosen, and talks with people like Stone, Julian Schnabel, Mira Nair, Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh were all worth seeing.

    So is the discussion between Clarke and former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism Michael Sheehan, as they evaluate the French response from their insiders' point of view.

    The extras are fascinating, but the film still stands out. In the microcosm of Algiers, convulsing in its first throes to throw off French rule, you'll learn history lessons about guerrilla war, state-sponsored war and what a people will do and risk for independence. But most of all, you'll experience a powerful and enduring work of art.

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