Battle of the Algiers (1966)

I really liked this movie because the director, Gillo Pontecorvo filmed events in North Africa using Italian Realism cinematography and narrative style. This familiar style localizes events that would otherwise be ‘foreign’ to westerners like me.

My personal interest for war movies stems from the desire to witness the breakdown and rebuilding of identity and society. Films that are identified clearly as propaganda can be boring because of their predictability. On the other hand, films that pay hommage to sad events can be overwhelming and overstimulating to the point where I feel manipulated to view war only from one perspective. To me, a great ‘war’ film  explains events from various perspectives using different methods.

The Battle of the Algiers was sympathetic to both French and Arab goals.

Let us start with Arab sympathy. This was evident in the introductory scene when Algerian men and women hide behind a wall in fear of being murdered. Their faces are lit and stark lighting suggests that their hiding space is small.

As the narrative develops, more Algerians join a resistance group called the FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale) and commit single-handed atrocities against French police. The French respond by bombing several towns.

In this second scene, Pontecorvo creates sympathy for the Algerians by replacing the sound with classical music. The scene looks almost like a news reel whereby people move around rubble haphazardly. Pontecorvo suggests the audience look at destruction from another perspective. Perhaps his desire behind the music is to give dignity to the victims, and incite sympathy in the audience by using familiar music.

Ironically, sympathy for Algerians is also achieved in the scene where three women bomb a French cafe and disco. At first, Pontecorvo creates spectator curiousity when he shows the women transforming their appearances from Arab to French. They cut their hair, and change their clothes to reveal their arms, necks, and legs. Some also speak French fluently. This scene sent a message that one cannot be judged by their appearances.

The women were few in number and agreed to use bombs for self-defence. Their goals as a minority for liberation were sympathized in the film. This is especially evident in the scene when they pass inspection into a French quarter. One mother must leave her child with a stranger and has a frightened face because of her fear of getting imprisoned. Another woman dances (probably for the first time) in a French cafe, and leaves the bomb in a plant.

She looks around curiously as if almost reconsidering the damage she will cause but leaves as if she is disturbed by her own emotions. Of course, it is wrong to interpret what the characters might be thinking-there is no way of knowing. But the various interpretations from these scenes add to the issue: who is victim, and who is culprit?

Pontecorvo also incites sympathy for the French. In the same scene, there are clips of a baby boy, unsuspecting girls and boys dancing, men laughing amidst conversation. Also in the scenes whereby policemen are murdered- it must be Pontecorvo’s intent for the spectator to ask why such acts ‘seem’ or ‘are’ necessary in a revolution or war.

Other than inciting sympathy for both sides, Pontecorvo also reveals mild cultural differences.  Many shots reflect the scattered perspective of residential houses with open rooves. There is one vertical pan, during a wedding where the camera looks at the couple then looks up past many floors up onto the roof where people are witnessing the occasion. During this scene, the presider suggests they perform the wedding quickly because of political circumstances. However, the girl and boy look very innocent and happy, similar to Romeo and Juliet. There is classical music playing as well as chants and wails. Similar music is played during scenes of liberation or motivation.

Thirdly, Pontecorvo looks at the defensive tactics of the Arabs and the French. As a spectator, it is enlightening to be invited to understand such things since most movies gloss over the reality of social and political organization. There is a scene where the French look over camera footage of inspection, and imagine the hierarchic structure of the FLN where most members do not know each other personally. There are also scenes where the FLN meet and direct individuals to perform different tasks.

Similar to the bombing scene in the French quarter, the press-media scene questions the ethics of war. In an interview, a Frenchman says that the Arab’s basket-bombs are menacing but also pathetic because they are hidden. Alternatively, an Arab FLN says something like, “we’ll stop using our baskets when you stop using your bombs”. In this scene it is easy to see that both groups are victimizing each other.

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