The Battle of Algiers (1966) Blu Ray & DVD (CultFilms)
Resistance to the French occupation of Algeria
This depiction of the Algerian War of Independence (from its then occupation by France) is set largely in the country’s capital, Algiers, between 1954 and 1957. While it focuses on a series of key events through these years and various characters involved, the two main figures here are Ali La Pointe (Brahim Hadjadj) on the Islamic Algerian side and Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin) on the French side.
The former is a petty crook and former boxer who gets involved with the radical Islam FLN in the city’s ethnic Casbah Quarter, who wage war against the occupying colonial French who reside in the wealthy European Quarter via a series of escalating acts of violence. What starts out as a series of gendarme shootings results in the French forces retaliating by blowing up a resistance hideout. After this results in a number of casualties which include children, the FLN escalates to a string of indiscriminate bombings of various French businesses.
Mathieu, a prominent military figure who was, himself, (ironically) a former member of the French Resistance during WWII, is brought in to hunt down the remaining members of the FLN via a mixture of interrogation (a euphemism for brutal torture) and all-out street warfare.
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An even-handed look at guerrilla warfare
The Battle of Algiers is one of the most frank and realistic portrayals of armed resistance and guerrilla warfare ever filmed. Shot in a newsreel Italian Neorealism style with a mostly non-professional cast (the exception being Jean Martin), it is notable for its unusually even-handed depiction of events. This is particularly surprising in the light of the fact that the film was based on the memoirs of erstwhile FLN member Saadi Yacef, who also co-produced and was cast as Jafar, a fictionalised version of his real-life persona.
Of course, no account is completely unbiased; The Battle of Algiers does veer closer to sympathy for the Islamic position than it does for the French one, to the extent that it was banned in France for a number of years. This is visible right from an early chase scene when Ali La Pointe is tripped up by a group of smirking French youths while attempting to escape from some gendarmes. Later on, we see the heavy-handed treatment meted out at army checkpoints towards the characters dressed in an obviously Muslim fashion, whilst those dressed in a European style are allowed to pass through in the blink of an eye (something the FLN decides to take full advantage of later on the proceedings). When the resistance blows up a spectator stand at a horse race, a hapless young boy selling souvenirs is set upon by a crowd baying for blood. The parallels to Apartheid-era South Africa are all too evident.
On the other hand, we see the tragically inevitable sufferings of war taking place on both sides of the divide. When a suspected FLN hideout is bombed by the French forces, we bear witness to a lengthy scene of bodies being pulled out of the rubble while Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack solemnly mourns their loss. The seem treatment is afforded a group of young French boys and girls who are also pulled lifelessly from the rubble during the obligatory reprisal bombing. Later on, we see a montage of brutal tortures of FLN suspects by various means including water, fire and electricity. This is followed by two FLN members driving a van down night-time streets in the French Quarter, mowing down endless rows of bystanders via machine gun. The interminable tit-for-tat cycle of suffering has rarely been depicted as starkly as it is here.
The Battle of Algiers is superbly directed in its individual sequences. The shady, bustling atmosphere of the Casbah’s tight streets and myriad of nooks and crannies is brought effectively to a life which seems to be an entirely different world to the orderly, cafe-lined boulevards and fashionably-dressed French citizens seen in the European Quarter. Action sequences mix deliberately-paced tension with shocking bursts of gunfire. In keeping with the matter-of-fact, newsreel approach, Morricone’s music is only used on a few occasions but always makes a startling impact when during those moments (as per the aforementioned bombing aftermaths).
A message as important nowadays as it has ever been
It’s a film which retains its relevance to this day, when European cities are suffering from terrorist attacks from radicalised Islamic groups who, in turn, arise out of the chaotic state of their own nations being torn apart by European-made bombs. If a more balanced viewpoint is taken towards the causes of this suffering - rather than the one-sided narratives pressed by government and media voices - then there may be a chance of humanity preventing further bloodshed. However, it clearly has to be addressed before it spirals out of control towards the tragic maelstrom of death which is depicted here. At that point, it’s too late.
Runtime: 121 mins
Dir: Gillo Pontecorvo
Script: Franco Solinas and Gillo Pontecorvo, based on the memoirs of Saadi Yacef
Starring: Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin, Saadi Yacef, Tommaso Neri
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The 4K restored footage is absolutely spot-on in terms of contrast and detail. If the picture looks a little grainy one must remember that this was always the director’s intention in order to give it an authentic newsreel look. Ennio Morricone’s music sounds warm and full - and the dialogue pin-sharp. A restoration job worthy of the hype.
Interview with Dr. Gillo Pontecorvo “The Making of the Battle of Algiers”
An archive interview with the director, who begins by talking about how he achieved the realistic look of the film, mentioning that blotted the sky out with white sheets in shots to achieve a diffused effect. He shot with several cameras simultaneously as he couldn’t afford to carry out many reshoots of the numerous crowd scenes. He also talks about working with Ennio Morricone and the the struggle against colonialism which was taking place during the time when the film was made.
The Battle of Algiers 4K Restoration Process with Marco Pontecorvo
Interviews with various personnel at restoration company L’immagine Ritrovata along a few glimpses of the various pieces of hi-tech equipment which they used. They also discuss the slight differences in footage between the Italian and French versions, from the differing language used in the credits/timecards to the fact that a handful of brief shots appear in the former version but not the latter. They reveal that the process of restoring a film takes, on average, around 1000 hours.
Gille Pontecorvo’s son Marco is also interviewed near the end.
The “Real” Battle of Algiers - Interview with Producer Saadi Yacef, head of the FLN guerrillas
In this fascinating interview Saadi describes the generally appalling treatment that most Muslims (a privileged few excepted) lived in during the French occupation. He also talks about the various guerrilla tactics used by the FLN (which are accurately reflected in the film), and reveals that the French army’s policy of torturing suspects inadvertently proved to be a highly effective recruitment tool for the group. When he served his time in prison he wrote his memoirs and sought to get them made into a film. However, since nobody in France at that time would touch it, he went to Italy and finally got it made by Pontecorvo.
As an accompaniment to the film, it’s a definite must-watch.
Our War for Freedom - Interview with FLN fighter Zhora Drif Bitat
Zhora talks about her memories of living in a country where many of her fellow people were massacred and those left were reduced to a state of illiteracy and poverty. Needless to say, the FLN provided her with the opportunity to take part in a route to changing this. A superb interview which reveals that the sole difference between “terrorist” and “freedom fighter” is one of viewpoint.
Director Paul Greengrass reflects on the film
The director of Bloody Sunday and three of the Jason Bourne films gives us his appraisal of a film which he calls “an undisputed masterpiece”. He touches upon the film’s contemporary relevance (this interview seems to date from the Arab Spring era considering as he makes references to events in Cairo).
Director Ken Loach on The Battle of Algiers
The British Social Realist director discusses the film, the way in which it pre-empted the trajectory of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the time when he met Pontecorvo at the Venice Film Festival.
A number of photographs of the awards ceremony at the Venice Film Festival, on-set stills featuring Pontecorvo and the actors, and photos + media clippings of Saadi Yacef from the real Battle of Algiers.
The Battle of Algiers is a film that fully deserves its plaudits and counts as an essential piece of education for anyone with an interest in either cinema or political debate. As with their release of Suspiria, CultFilms’ presentation of this 4K restoration marks them out as a Blu Ray label to watch.