The Battle of Algiers (1966)
September 21, 1967
Screen: Local Premiere of Pontecorvo’s Prize-Winning ‘Battle of Algiers’:Gripping Re-enactment Opens Film Festival Two Italian Comedies at Local Theaters
By BOSLEY CROWTHER
Published: September 21, 1967
A MOST extraordinary picture for an opener at the New York Film Festival was placed before the first-night audience in Philharmonic Hall last night. It is Gillo Pontecorvo’s ferocious “The Battle of Algiers,” a starkly realistic re-enactment of events as they substantially occurred between 1954 and 1957 in the rebellion against the French in the capital of Algeria.
It is extraordinary, first, that such a picture—such a literal and traditional account of intra-urban guerrilla warfare in a wasteful conflict that occurred so long ago—should have been picked to open a festival that has been kicked off in the last four years by noticeably avant-gardish and thematically exploratory films.
The supposition is that this departure was made because “The Battle of Algiers” is an uncommonly dynamic picture that has proved its pulling power at festivals. It pulled down the grand prize at Venice and the top award at London last year, and took a blue at Acapulco last winter. On the strength of this, it was acquired for commercial distribution in this country, and was booked to open here at Cinema II tonight.
What could have been more appropriate, then, than to have this much talked-about film rack up two premieres with one show at the New York festival?
But more extraordinary and therefore more commanding of lasting interest and critical applause is the amazing photographic virtuosity and pictorial conviction of this film. So authentically and naturalistically were its historical reflections staged, with literally thousands of citizens participating, in the streets and buildings of Algiers that it looks beyond any question to be an original documentary film, put together from newsreel footage, complemented by staged dramatic scenes.
Startling long shots of people and police fighting in the sun-drenched, tree-lined streets, so familiar and recognizable from the photographs of the Algerian strife; shattering close-ups of thunderous explosions in native quarters and crowded French cafes have all the concrete and vibrant “actuality” of newsreels made during the war.
Yet Mr. Pontecorvo assures us there’s not a scrap of newsreel footage in his film—that he and his crews shot the whole thing very much after the facts, with native amateurs and a few professional actors playing the key and leading roles.
This becomes apparent as one follows the narrative account of the violent upsurge of rebellion in Algiers in 1954 and the establishment of a rebel stronghold in the Casbah, from which hit-and-run forays of snipers and women bomb-planters into the French section of the city are made. And it is clear, to anyone who remembers, when file French ‘paratroopers move in and begin the systematic clean-out of the Casbah under the command of a Colonel Mathieu.
This lean and relentless officer, played by Jean Martin, is obviously not the colorful and memorable Gen. Jacques Massu, whose 10th Paratrooper Division wiped out the rebel opposition in Algiers in 1957. But his manner is so intense and forceful, and his fairness and even respect for the resistance leaders are so well drawn, that one feels as though one is truly watching the spectacular and compassionate Massu.
Likewise, the roles of rebel leaders, played by Brahim Haggiag and Yacef Saadi, are done with such ferocity and fervor that they certainly convince me.
In its melodramatic structure, as well as its staging techniques, this film does have antecedents. The excellent “Four Days of Naples,” done with such documentary stylization by Mr. Pontecorvo’s fellow Italian, Nanni Loy, back in 1962, is its immediate model. And the prototype for both of them, of course, is Roberto Rossellini’s “Open City,” a classic neorealistic film.
Essentially, the theme is one of valor—the valor of people who fight for liberation from economic and political oppression. And this being so, one may sense a relation in what goes on in this picture to what has happened in the Negro ghettos of some of our American cities more recently. The fact that the climax of the drama is actually negative, with the rebellion wiped out and its leaders destroyed, has immediate pertinence, too. But eventual victory for the Algerians — and therefore symbolic hope for all who struggle for freedom— is acknowledged in a sketchy epilogue.
I must also mention the very interesting and effective musical score prepared by Mr. Pontecorvo and Ennio Morriscone for this vivid dramatic reportage.