Battle of Algiers
An unforgettable study of occupation and defeat.
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
Columbus, Ohio – In 1962 after more than 130 years of French colonial rule, Algeria became independent. Gillo Pontecorvo's "Algiers" shows the decade leading to that liberation in a powerful story about Muslims asserting their rights through violence, hiding, and plotting in the Kasbah, a demiworld of narrow, winding, seemingly endless alleys that are the only protection the rebels have from the eyes of the French. The re-release of the 1965 black and white film is a convincing story of a people who do not want to be occupied and will give their lives so their families can one day be free.
The story centers on a couple of Muslim leaders, the charismatic Col. of the French forces, and the bombings and shootouts that at one point averaged just over 4 per day. The film's sympathy is for the Muslims, but the Colonel has moments of reflection that could be sympathetic, especially with the revelation that he was a member of the resistance in WWII and may have suffered in a concentration camp. The director shows the influence of Italian neo-realists like Roberto Rossellini ("Paisan") by shooting in documentary style on location, using non-actors (except for the Colonel), and generally avoiding an agitprop angle.
But the film's sympathy in the end belongs to the occupied people. When 3 rebel women change appearance to look French, infiltrate, and plant bombs, the irony obvious to American audiences in their current struggle is a tribute to the strength of the narration and characterization and the universal dislike of occupation and subjugation.
The torture of the Muslim prisoners is the most poignant relevance to the recent scandal in Iraq. The Colonel's justification for the practice to gain life-saving information is classic "ends-justify-the-means" logic still being used by great nations. In fact, the Pentagon reportedly had seen this film during the first days of the second Iraq War; some say they learned nothing from the film, which is an unforgettable study of occupation and defeat.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com.