The Battle of Algiers is an extraordinary film for a number of reasons, primarily the impartiality with which the events are portrayed and the style in which it is shot. It was made just after Algerian independence from France and focuses upon the battle for the capital city in 1957, which although a failure for the National Liberation Front (FLN) at the time, sowed the seeds for the eventual withdrawal of France.
Director Gillo Pontecorvo drew upon the Italian tradition of neo-realism by using non-actors, except for the vital role of Colonel Mathieu, and location shooting. The latter was possible as the film had the co-operation of the Algerian government. Despite the fact that the government’s involvement might suggest a propaganda, nation-building, purpose for the film, Pontecorvo, and screenwriter Franco Solanas, do not portray the French as monsters.
Indeed, the even-handedness of the way each side is presented is quite remarkable; both commit atrocities and deaths on both sides are shown to be equally tragic. For example, the bombing of the Casbah, by off duty French policemen, is followed by the equally cold-blooded bombing of, amongst other places, a milk bar full of young people. Whilst it is clear that the atrocity committed by the French was answered by Algerian revenge, Pontecorvo spends more time emphasising how innocent the French victims are through a series of eyeline matches from the woman planting the bomb. The aftermath uses the same music, Bach’s B minor Mass, which also accompanied images of the dead being dragged from the rubble in the Casbah.
Later, Algerian ‘freedom fighters’ rampage through town in an ambulance shooting anyone they can. This is in response to the torturing of Algerians as the paratroopers tried to track down the FLN’s leadership. Col. Mathieu is even allowed to justify the use of torture, though this is used to illustrate politicians’ hypocrisy. As he says, if you wish Algeria to remain French then it must be done. Mathieu is no cardboard villain but a compassionate, professional soldier, played with great charisma by Jean Martin (who’d lost a part because he signed a petition supporting Algerian independence). On two occasions, when French passers-by attack Algerians in hysterical revenge for killings, it is gendarmes who come to the rescue. It’s not obvious as to why the French banned the film for many years.
I should make clear that the film doesn’t condone torture; the scenes are quite horrific and the film’s viewpoint is obviously anti-colonialist. The French should not be there; there should be no reason for torture.
Unlike the neo-realists, the event portrayed is not insignificant but a decisive moment in Algeria’s fight for freedom. Also, the use of faux newsreel footage (the image was processed to look grainy) is a departure from neo-realist technique. It does, however, give the film immense immediacy. I have to keep reminding myself that the film is a recreation; Paul Greengrass achieves the same effect with Bloody Sunday (UK, 2002).
A final point to make, and something that has been reflected in the Arab Spring, is the vital role of women in the uprising. Three women plant the bombs that kill many and the final shot of the film is a woman, holding the national flag, who keeps coming forward despite being pushed back by French security forces.
The Battle of Algiers is one of the greatest films of the 20th century.