It would difficult to imagine a more appropriate moment for a reissue of “The Battle of Algiers,” Gillo Pontecorvo’s remarkable 1965 quasi-documentary recounting the 1954-1957 French suppression of a rebellion against their colonial rule in North Africa. The film is particularly timely given the current American attempt to deal with a resistance movement in another Islamic nation.
But even if the historical comparison didn’t exist, “Algiers” would still be a brilliant film, staged with almost newsreel precision but presented with the punch of a great political thriller. The crux of the narrative is an underground independence movement that begins making what amount to terrorist assaults against the regime: policemen are killed and bombs planted at cafes, bars and race tracks. When the established constabulary proves incapable of handling the unrest, a battalion of paratroopers led by Colonel Mathieu, a veteran of the war in Indochina, is sent into the city, and ultimately succeeds in quelling the movement by using tough extra-legal methods that would be unacceptable under ordinary circumstances. An epilogue makes clear that though the revolutionary movement was stifled in 1957, the French success was but temporary; it erupted with even greater strength a few years afterward (and that time succeeded).
Despite the extraordinary verisimilitude that Pontecorvo and his cinematographer Marcello Gatti achieve in the restaging of crowd scenes, the film takes liberties. The script by Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas isn’t a historical document but a dramatic one. Mathieu, played with cool dispassion by Jean Martin, isn’t the historical French commander of the counterinsurgency brigade (that was General Jacques Massu, who died as recently as 2002). And the score (partially the work of Ennio Morricone) certainly uses the devices of cinema music to ratchet up the tension. But the authenticity the film conveys derives not so much from details as from its general thrust. In addition to Martin’s sturdy, curiously principled Mathieu, one is struck by the performances of Brahim Haggiag and Yacef Saadi as Ali La Pointe and Jaffar, the two most notable members of the resistance. The rest of the cast do memorable work as well–Mohamed Ben Kassen is especially notable as Little Omar, the child who’s an important part of many of the underground’s missions. And you’re unlikely to forget the robed Moslem women who transform themselves into western-style garb to transport bombs through French checkpoints to their targets without attracting attention.
“The Battle of Algiers” was banned in France for years, and one can be thankful at least that a like attempt to suppress it hasn’t occurred in this country now. (Of course, the inclination on the part of some politicians to charge anybody who expresses disagreement with administration policy in Iraq with a lack of patriotism is quite bad enough, and the tendency may well get worse before things are over.) In any event, the appearance of this beautifully restored print is a cause for celebration: despite being half a century old, the film still has a powerful and pertinent message for viewers here and abroad.