This is a charged moment for Rialto Pictures to re-release Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic The Battle Of Algiers, which won the top prize at the 1966 Venice Film Festival. The film was enormously controversial even in its day—so much so, in fact, that it wasn’t commercially released in France until 1971, despite having received multiple Oscar nominations (not just Foreign-Language Film, but major categories like Screenplay and Director). Imagine, then, how its frank depiction of Algeria’s struggle for independence—consisting of horrifically violent skirmishes between Muslim guerrilla fighters and a largely white military—will play in a country where nearly half of the population explicitly or tacitly supports Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. While technically brilliant and consistently engrossing, The Battle Of Algiers is not easy to embrace on political grounds; it neither demonizes nor lionizes either side of the conflict, aiming for just-the-ugly facts objectivity. Nobody who sees it is likely to feel comforted, or even vindicated. The emotion it most frequently and fervently inspires is sorrow.
Opening in 1957, near the end of its narrative, Pontecorvo’s account introduces rebel leader Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) as he hides from the French police, then quickly flashes back to three years earlier, showing how Ali either developed a conscience or became radicalized, according to ideology. (Already, one can see a possible argument brewing.) He’s just one character in a broad tapestry, however, and The Battle Of Algiers jumps around as necessary to follow the progress of what would become the Algerian War, introducing new players as it goes. The film divides its attention fairly evenly between the insurgents, whose tactics include acts that can only be called terrorism, and the state, which regularly engages in torture and outright murder. Figures on both sides are worthy of admiration—Ali’s counterpart among the paratroopers is the shrewd, ruthless Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin)—but this is decidedly war-is-hell territory, with a special emphasis on the uniquely ghastly nightmare that is guerrilla warfare.
Are truth and objectivity sufficient to create a masterpiece? Some think so, certainly—The Battle Of Algiers regularly shows up on lists of the greatest war movies ever made (and sometimes shows up on lists of the greatest movies ever made, irrespective of genre). Dramatically, the film suffers a bit from the same shapelessness that afflicts biopics and other heavily fact-based pictures, registering as a succession of loosely connected events, rather than as a discrete object sculpted from the clay of history. Pontecorvo’s choice to mimic the visual aesthetic of documentaries—at which he succeeded so well that the original American distributor made a point of boasting that not a frame of newsreel footage appears—was both revolutionary and hugely influential; most of today’s roughhewn docudramas have some Algiers in their DNA. It’s that formal genius, along with Ennio Morricone’s anxious, staccato score, that truly endures, and will continue to do so long after heated debates about the phrase “radical Islam” have finally died.