In music, there is a specific cultural niche for artists whose influence goes far beyond their record sales or name recognition (i.e. Woody Guthrie). Rarely do films ever achieve this omnipresence, but Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers certainly has. One doesn’t have to look far to see that current cinema is a Battle of Algiers lovefest. In Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino underscores Hugo Stiglitz’s escape with the music written by Pontecorvo and Ennio Morricone. In The Town, Ben Affleck nods to the classic with robbers dressed in nun habits, in place of Algiers’ burqas. If you buy the Criterion Collection DVD, you can watch Oliver Stone, Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh speak to the film’s impact on their own movies. Ever since its release, countless filmmakers have looked to Pontecorvo’s use of in media res, hybrid documentary style and subversive political commentary.
Thankfully Cornell Cinema is giving Algiers its due and screening the film tomorrow and Friday. If you aren’t planning on seeing it for your own enjoyment, there are plenty of different classes with professors who would advise you see it. That is because the film can be analyzed from multiple perspectives, as Algiers does not navigate a typical narrative structure. In solidarity with the ‘Third Cinema’ movement by Solanas and Getino, which sought to create a revolutionary anti-colonialist/capitalist narrative specific to ‘third world’ movies, Algiers has no main character and rids itself of the typical Hollywood three-act structure. Instead, the film’s protagonist is its cause. The struggle of the Algerian War of Independence drives the plot forward.
The film begins in Algiers in 1954, a city divided by a wealthy European quarter for the French bourgeois and a shanty Casbah for the native Algerian Arabs. Slowly, racial and political tensions boil. The Arabs’ FLN, or National Liberation Front, begins to commit random outbursts of violence against the French police and gentry, seeking to pressure the French out of Algeria. The French retaliate, bringing in their best soldiers from the French Resistance and Indochinese occupations. The new junta serves as an investigative unit to root out FLN radicals and quell popular rebellion.
At this point, the film begins to articulate an uncanny resemblance to many wars of western imperialism, specifically America’s tenure in Iraq. The French government fabricates a threat to sway support for its occupational presence and an excuse to bypass UN action. The military begins to use brutal torture methods to choke out information on FLN members. They begin to grey the grounds for a right to Free Trial. Loudspeakers in the Casbah communicate France’s intention to establish a more humane government for the Arab population.
In response, the Algerian nationalists create a provisional vigilante government that establishes rules for its people. When they bar alcohol consumption, local schoolboys beat up a drunkard. Since drugs indicate a lack of dedication to the movement, FLN members stamp out marijuana use. In revenge for French injustices, the FLN coordinates a bombing of innocent French citizens. The film’s portrayal of the National Front is so intricate that it was rumored that the Black Panthers and IRA screened the movie for study.
Ironically, the movie takes influence from France’s New Wave cinema. The narration, overlapping dialogue, references to Jean-Paul Sartre, documentary footage and action in public settings (you almost think you can see Jason Bourne) calls to mind Jean-Luc Godard. The film bears his influence but fashions itself more like a docu-drama. With a mixture of multiple sympathetic characters and interspersed newsreels, the movie runs like a John Dos Passos novel. Although its style is unique and inimitable, the frequent large-scale action and jarring suspense will grip and even shock modern audiences.
In response to the Arab Spring, there almost seems a need for The Battle of Algiers, Part Two. Recent struggles point out the bleak reality of the governments that supplanted the colonialist powers brought down in the film. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan further accentuate the timeless message and anti-imperialist zeal. In the movie, the French high command frequently references the need to sway popular will in favor of violent reprisal. They justify these acts by emphasizing the unbelievable ruthlessness of the other side. It is probably accurate, as history proves power-mongers love to create reason to reciprocate. With the sinking of the USS Maine in Spanish-American War and talk of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, the U.S. government has certainly exhausted the tactic. Likewise, in Algiers, before every just Algerian attack on the military, the French commit a horrible unjust atrocity. The Battle of Algiers proves, whether capitalist or non-capitalist narrative structure, documentary or depiction, film is just like war and politics. All serve as sophisticated games, see-sawed by pathos points, for the purpose of moral persuasion.
The Battle of Algiers plays at Cornell Cinema Thursday at 7 p.m. and Friday at 7:15 p.m. Prof. Sabine Haenni, performing and media arts, will introduce Thursday’s screening.