Welcome to another day of the event of the year: the Decades Blogathon – 6 edition – hosted by myself and Tom from Digital Shortbread! The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the sixth year of the decade. Tom and I are running a different entry each day (we’ll also reblog the other’s post) and for Super Tuesday it’s the turn of Marta from Ramblings of a Cinephile, who turns her sights on the masterpiece that is The Battle Of Algiers (1966).
The gritty and rather bloody story of the uprising that led to the independence of Algeria in 1962 is shot by Gillo Pontecorvo in a compelling style.
Commissioned by the Algerian government less than a decade after the facts, it shows both sides in an unforgiving way – from the terrorist attacks of the Algerian militants to the tortures of the French army. Pontecorvo plunges the viewer in the middle of the action starting his tale with a raid of the French paratroopers to hunt down the last leader of the FLN (National Liberation Front), holed up in the Casbah, the Muslim district of Algiers.
The whole sequence is very gripping thanks to the amazing music by Ennio Morricone and introduces two of the main characters: Colonel Matthieu (Martin), who is in charge of quelling the rebellion and Ali La Pointe (Hadjadi), prominent leader of the FLN. From there it goes back to the beginning of the story, in 1954, with the recruitment of Ali, at the time a small-time con artist, by Djafar (Saadi), one of the leaders of the FLN.
Through Ali’s eyes we see how the liberation movement grows and how the violence escalates from individual attacks on policemen to bombing cafes and restaurants in the affluent European district. The viewer is also shown the reactions from the French, both sanctioned and unsanctioned by the government in Paris. The use of force is, of course, met with more violence until the situation is so dire that the army is sent to deal with it.
A contingent of paratroopers led by General Carelle arrives in Algiers in 1957, but the real, hands-on commander is Colonel Matthieu, veteran of WWII and the war of Indochina. He puts his experience to good use and slowly but surely dismantles the FLN, working his way through the organisation with ruthless efficiency; either killing or capturing its members and compelling information with torture. This fight without quarter seems to be over in Algiers since there are no more FLN militants, but rebels keep resisting in the mountains.
Algeria will gain its independence four years later mostly due to widespread popular demonstrations and the support of the UN, the latter due to a shift in the international public opinion that will become more sympathetic towards the Algerians and their plight.
What I find very interesting about this film is that it’s partially based on the memoirs of Yacef Saadi, who was a leader of the FLN, but it’s even-handed. It doesn’t demonise the French domination; the facts are presented in a detached way with a very effective documentary-like style.
It’s rather striking that, commissioned by the government of the newly independent Algeria, it avoids any bias and presents the events in stark but impartial light. It’s even more striking that the only professional actor is Jean Martin and none of the scenes are from newsreels but they are all carefully planned and shot to create the right effect.
Pontecorvo, his cinematographer Marcello Gatti and his editors Mario Morra and Mario Serandrei give us a true work of art.