Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Whenever someone asks me what my favorite film of all time is, in truth, it's not an easy answer. Honestly, there are so many films I absolutely love and feel passionate about, and I can't easily compare most of them against one another. They're just so different. Yet, rather than going into a long monologue about it, I find myself usually defaulting to Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 film about the French/Algerian conflict.

The rationale behind this is that, well, first and foremost, it's an excellent film. But for me, I think one of the true hallmarks of a great film is that it holds up and passes the test of time, which this one achieves in a way that very few films before or since have been able to. It got a small rerelease in 2004, and I think those unaware might never have guessed that it wasn't a current release. I'd have loved to catch this on the big screen, yet sadly, these revivals rarely make it to this neck of the woods.

It also remains incredibly relevant today. It's almost eerie how closely the events from the French/Algerian conflict mirror the current situation in Iraq. Say what you will about the French, but the saying "those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it" comes to mind. While the U.S. could stand to heed that message, in watching the film, and with a little hindsight, it's pretty easy to see why the French were so adamant in their objections to the current war.

One of the most incredible things about this film is how even-handed it is. While I think it would be misleading to say that Pontecorvo was completely objective in presenting the film, he does show both sides of the conflict: the destruction each side faces, the innocent lives lost, and the retaliatory measures each side takes to exact revenge.

The film has a documentary feel to it, and there really isn't a great deal of character development to be found, though each side has a central figure. Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), is one of the Algerian leaders, while Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin) is the military commander on the French side. Both men are hellbent on victory and very little will deter them from their goals.

In one of the most notable sequences, three Algerian women dress and style their hair to pass themselves off as French, and sneak into the French side of town where they obtain explosive-filled purses to detonate in populated areas. These women stash their bombs in cafes and airport terminals. But what really sinks in during these sequences is that while carrying out these plans, the women study the faces of the French civilians being targeted. They are completely oblivious to what is to occur, and they are simply going about their daily lives. Yet the women look at them with the foreknowledge that these innocent people are about to die or be injured. And it's difficult to read their expressions... is it hatred or guilt behind their eyes?

You'll note that in that trailer (as well as in the opening of the film), it offers a simple title card that reads "containing not a single frame of documentary or news footage." While that might not seem that remarkable at first, it becomes rather impressive when you look back at the time when this was being filmed. There was no CGI involved in these explosions. The riot scenes were all shot on the Algerian streets using thousands of people. These scenes were all recreated with such realism without the aid of today's technology. While the violence is rather bloodless, I kind of like that it doesn't have to shock us with gore to still appall and interest the viewer.

It is somewhat interesting that there has been a newfound interest in the French/Algerian conflict these days with films like Caché and Days of Glory (with the former showing us the tensions that still exist, while the latter showing us how some of those tensions were born). Yet, I still think it was pretty remarkable that Pontecorvo covered the story so soon afterwards with as much objectivity as he did (which may be some of the reason I respect Paul Greengrass' United 93 as much as I do).

While this is just one of the many, many films I absolutely love, I do think The Battle of Algiers is the best war film ever made, and one of the most important films ever made, and simply, one of the best films ever made, regardless of genre. While the Criterion DVD set is pretty pricey (it retails for about $49.99, though you can pick it up for cheaper through an online retailer), I'd also recommend watching the special features if possible. There is a great 18-minute feature called "Five Directors," which has Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Steven Soderbergh, Mira Nair, and Julian Schnabel all discussing the film, how it influenced and inspired them in their works, and just how much this film is revered.

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