Battle of Algiers, The
9/10 (documentary feel dulls emotional impact)
This is one of the best historical films alive. Director Pontecorvo set out to tell the story of the 1950s Algerian independence movement in the most objective manner possible. The result is one of the most powerful, truthful and gripping films you will ever see. And you can whine all you want about this being black and white, but I tell you that it matters not one bit. This movie is as timeless as the perfect “12 Angry Men,” and just about as good.
From a historical perspective the movie is simply invaluable. There is of course a natural bias against the oppressing French, but I imagine that it stems from our modern-day inclination toward autonomy and sovereignty for native populations the world over. Indeed, one of the most impressive aspects of the film is the way in which Pontecorvo (and actor Jean Martin) portrays the chief counter-insurgency officer Lt.-Col. Matthieu. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to make him into some fascist, sadistic fiend who loves torturing prisoners regardless of any useful information it extracts. It was much more courageous to create a human character who is almost resigned in his actions, not necessarily liking it but knowing that if France is intent on victory (though not sure that they should be), there is no other way. The viewer can see that he comprehends not only the situation but his adversaries, and this comprehension breeds a compassion of sorts. He is a noble character, and even if he perpetrates ignoble actions never does the audience hate him.
It is this lack of true villains that makes the film so unique and lasting. Every character has a comprehensible motivation, and you as the viewer can’t hate anyone, even though they might hate each other. It actually reflects real life in this way, which is what makes it remarkable. Dick Cheney may seem like Darth Vader to most people, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t think of himself that way. Does Darth Vader even consider himself evil? Okay, getting off topic, sorry. The point is that most crappy movies would do well to remember and imitate this lesson from “Battle.”
A logical byproduct of Pontecorvo’s maintenance of objectivity is that the viewer finds it hard to relate to any of the characters completely. You can’t ally yourself with Matthieu even if he seems like an eminently reasonable man. He represents a repressive invading force. But there’s something about the coldness of the Algerians’ chief protagonist, Ali La Pointe, that is equally off-putting. Or the way that the Arab women callously blow up public cafes and offices in the French quarter. This plus the episodic nature of the screenplay give the movie a documentary feeling, which undoubtedly works well to keep your interest. At the end, however, the lack of emotional attachment leaves you more in the position of curious bystander than engaged audience member. This is the film’s only flaw, and it’s a small one.
Ultimately, though, there is no excuse for not seeing this film. Even if you don’t like old movies, this movie’s ten times more engaging than the last piece of crap you saw in the theater. And even if you don’t care about France, Algeria, or any other countries outside your own, this is a fascinating real-life account of guerrilla insurgency that you just cannot see anywhere else. And if you don’t like black-and-whites, other countries, or war, you still need to see this movie as an integral part of film history.
If you don’t like black-and-white, other countries, war, or movies, then you shouldn’t be on this website in the first place. See? I told you, no excuses!
25 March 2010