Indeed, few films speak truth to power quite like The Battle of Algiers, the crown jewel at this year's New Orleans Film Festival (NOFF), which will be screened next Monday, Oct. 11, at Canal Place. In a year where the documentary has enjoyed an unprecedented surge in popularity -- led, dubiously or not, by Michael Moore's polemic Fahrenheit 9/11 -- the NOFF has followed in suit with an impressive offering of non-fiction fare. But it is The Battle of Algiers, a barely fictionalized account of the fight between occupiers and occupied, that is the true work of art. If you were to poll the makers of these films, Moore included, you'd find a solid majority owing a debt of gratitude to Pontecorvo even if he made mostly "fiction" works.
In doing so, he kept it real in a way that Moore, for all his passions, never could. The Battle of Algiers is cinema verite at its most artistic, a realistic story that is realistically shot with realistic people playing realistic characters -- and yet with a lyricism that aches with emotion. Pontecorvo's revolutionary film about a revolutionary epoch features only one professionally trained actor and reenactments of riots, bombings and torture that jump off the screen, along with a narrative that, while decidedly partisan, probes the situation with an almost omniscient eye.
Though the original story included a European protagonist (Paul Newman was an early choice), Pontecorvo and co-screenwriter Franco Solinas eventually decided on a collaboration with one of the National Liberation Front's (FLN) leaders, Saadi Yacef. Yacef, just a couple years after the 1962 liberation and his release from prison, was looking for a filmmaker to shoot a script based on his memoirs. (Excerpts are included in the Criterion booklet.) Pontecorvo even cast Yacef to essentially play himself (Djafar in the movie). He didn't stop there; one scene features a prisoner shouting "Long live Algeria!" on his way to an execution, played by a man who once had been sentenced to death. Another character, a tortured prisoner who ultimately gives up a leader's hideout, is played by a criminal who was temporarily paroled to play the part.
And then there was Brahim Haggiag, a street type who plays the hustler, Ali La Pointe, who undergoes a Malcolm X-like conversion in prison and joins the resistance. The reason for his casting? Haggiag's face, which is angular, pointed and volatile -- perfect for Pontecorvo's needs. "I'm a maniac when it comes to the physical resemblance between the person who will play a certain role and the character we envisioned while writing it," says Pontecorvo, now 84. "I prefer taking someone off the street who's never been in films, but who has the right face, over an actor with a face that isn't quite right." Spoken like the true Italian neorealist that he is.
While the political slant is clear -- Pontecorvo was a member of a communist youth group that fought the fascists in World War II -- Pontecorvo tries to look at the multiple dimensions of the scenario and not just its impact on the Algerian people. The lone professional actor, France's Jean Martin as the paratrooper Col. Mathieu, delivers his lines with a Rumsfeldian clarity; you may disagree with the morality behind his actions, but you can appreciate his cool logic and firmness of conviction in trying to quash a rebellion. There is also a key scene in the film when women are recruited to deliver bombs into heavily populated French parts of Algiers, and Pontecorvo makes a point of moving the camera from the women's faces to those around her -- including a child's -- moments before the deadly blasts. The scene echoes of the Middle East.
"I believe -- and above all (co-screenwriter) Franco Solinas believed -- that it is important to get inside the minds of both sides," Pontecorvo notes, later explaining how he used the great Ennio Morricone's score to level the playing field somewhat. "The French dead and the Algierian dead have the same music, a religious theme inspired by Bach. This was appropriate because it conveyed the idea that blood shed on either side merits the same grief and deserves to be given the same emotional treatment."
Pontecorvo's camera snakes throughout Algiers, with its 400,000 Arabs, searching for that emotion. Time and time again, he uses the frame-within-a-frame technique of showing the Algerians boxed inside cramped confines -- trapped, really, even while they brandish their machine guns. But then the camera is all wide angle in expanding the scope of protest, the Algerians erupting in what sounds like a yelp or even a cattle call that Pontecorvo turns into a soundtrack of defiance. By the end, there isn't one nook or cranny of the city you haven't seen even the winding steps and levels of the famous Casbah -- and no life you haven't felt affected.
The movie is also prescient, and it would be hard to believe Criterion didn't load up on the extras of this set without an eye toward the Bush Administration's invasion, and occupation, of Iraq. The third disc features not only a 28-minute, 2002 documentary featuring French military officers explaining their torture techniques (hello, Abu Ghraib) but also The Battle of Algiers: A Case Study, featuring former national counterterrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke (author of Against All Enemies) discussing the film's relevance with Michael A. Sheehan, a former State Department coordinator of counterterrorism.
Regardless of whether you agree with the Bush Administration's policy in Iraq, the resonance of strangers occupying a strange land is undeniable. In yet another special feature on the Criterion set, directors Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Julian Schnabel and Mira Nair discuss the film's influence on their careers. Soderbergh basically told his crew to watch The Battle of Algiers and its spiritual nephew, Costa-Gavras' 1969 film Z, to prepare for the Traffic shoot. But it is Lee, no stranger to controversy, who cuts to the quick: "Anytime you're in someone else's land, in their country, and they don't want you there, and you weren't invited, I think you can just look at The Battle of Algiers, and see what you're in store for."
The Algerians lost the battle of Algiers, but, as is often the case with occupations, they won the war. In one of the film's rare, truly scripted dramatic moments, Ali argues with leader Ben M'Hidi about the need to step up the violence during the FLN's called national strike as the United Nations pondered the situation. "Acts of violence don't win wars," says M'Hidi, who himself was later captured and murdered in prison by the paratroopers. "Neither wars nor revolutions. Terrorism is useful as a start. But then, the people themselves must act."
Just three years after Algeria won its independence, Gillo Pontecorvo was able to preserve that act, and the world -- certainly that of cinema, and perhaps beyond -- would never be the same.