May 6, 2004

The Battle of Algiers

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Winner of the Golden Lion at the 1966 Venice Film Festival, The Battle of Algiers is not arrogant enough to briskly condense the entire 130-year relationship between Algeria and France into two hours. No evidence of French maliciousness is displayed prior to the first terrorist bombings, and the Algerians have clearly done nothing to deserve the brunt of a colonial empire’s military might. Thus, from the very start, the characters’ motivations and rationales are muddled, duplicitous, occasionally incoherent. Like all great wars, both sides have forgotten the impetuses for their flagrant violations of human rights, and horrid rumors and generalizations have birthed horrid facts.

The opening sequence, one of the most famous in movie history, is a terrible amalgamation of every emotion war can inflict: the damp, ageless eyes and strangled respiration of a tortured Algerian segues into a raid on an apartment complex, full of crippled people unable to run, let alone fight. The great Ennio Morricone soundtrack of militaristic snarls and ceaseless concupiscence starts up, and the camera literally quivers with anticipation. It is as devastating as actual war footage, and as suspenseful as any Hollywood ruse. In a flashback to 1954 and the rise of the National Liberation Front, we meet Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), an illiterate, solitary rebel who gets a gun before he gets a cause. Rushed into prison, La Pointe breathlessly observes an execution monitored by two well-dressed French authorities’ blank faces. Confronted with this brutality and desperation, La Pointe devotes his entire existence to the revolution, and proceeds to unleash a series of barbaric gundowns on the French police. The rebels act in response to France’s grievous assaults on basic human rights, and clearly, the Algerians do not have the resources or skills to effectively engage in full warfare. So they’re also cold-blooded terrorists who leave a trail of mangled children and passersby in their wake.

While the movie is unequivocally sympathetic to the rebels, it never hesitates to observe the unbearable sins committed under the guise of liberation. Likewise, the French authority, Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin), is depicted as eminently reasonable and wracked by guilt and doubt. Even as gruesome raids persist upon an innocent Algerian populace, Mathieu notes that not every Algerian is their enemy. His solemn, inconsolable face towards the end of The Battle of Algiers marks an epiphany that he has realized far too late.

As The Village Voice has reported, the Pentagon has been holding private screenings of The Battle of Algiers, finding it replete with possible scenarios of dealing with Iraqi rebels. But it applies equally well to the cold, hard truths of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where desperation and oppression proliferate without any remembrance of what stirred these emotions in the first place. Not that it really matters. The themes of this movie are intrinsic to all incidents of human suffering. The simple fact of the matter is that the strategies, failures, and images of The Battle of Algiers are absolutely invaluable for anyone invested in the Revolution, the status quo, or humanity.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt
Red Letter Daze Editor-in-Chief