At Thanksgiving a few months ago, one of my uncles stumbled upon my copy of the 1001 Book and, curious, went through the checklist to see what I had seen and what he had seen himself. At the end, the one film that he had seen that made him scoff at the notion that I had never seen it yet more than any other was Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. I knew the reputation behind this one going into it, which raised my expectations some. As a result, I might not have judged the film fairly while I was watching it, but in hindsight, I think I can give a more even review.
The plot of this one isn’t really a plot, but a sequence of events that hops from character to character, all taking place in the titular battle of Algiers’ independence. What makes The Battle of Algiers (the film) especially notable is how frank it handles the subject of war. There is no patriotic jingoism or “oo-rah” heroism at display here; this is the ugly side of war, a big ball of it all jumbled together into a two-hour running time. There’s the FLN, the National Liberation Front that fights for the country’s independence, and the French army that opposes them and fights to keep Algeria under France’s control. I go no further in separating these two forces, as the film itself does little to differentiate between them; aside from fighting for opposing causes, these two groups operate in this war largely the same. Torturing, indiscriminate murder of civilians, terrorism; both groups freely and frequently use these and other tactics to strip away at their enemies and try to force them into submission. The technical work of the film is also a key aspect of the effect the film tries to instill. The incredibly stark black-and-white cinematography almost makes it look like the dichotomy of colors are bleeding into each other; an effect that manages to heighten the atrocities of war that the film depicts. The film almost comes across like a Robert Bresson film, only with more emotion and feeling, so that you can’t just watch this depiction of war with a thousand-yard stare. It is also the decision to film mostly in the Algiers casbah that lends a significant amount of authenticity to the proceedings, and the production value is thus upped a great degree.
What makes The Battle of Algiers work so effectively, and here I am echoing a sentiment shared in many other reviews, is that it doesn’t really takes sides or work as propaganda for one of the causes in the film. If anything, it is a film that wants to see Algeria win its independence, but not like this. It is too horrified at what some of the people do and the lengths to which the FLN will go to fight for their country to really put its support behind the faction, and so, instead, it sits, and merely observes, or rather makes us merely sit and observe. Granted, we are observing only what the film wants us to see, but in the context of war, that might be all that is needed. This went on to be nominated in a couple Academy Award categories outside the Best Foreign Language Film, including Best Director for Pontecorvo and Best Screenplay. They were well-deserved; this film is still as effective today as it was when it was released.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10