With Italian cinema, one tends to think of Antonioni as the extension of neo-realism’s elusive, analytical, slippery, and intangible qualities, its modernism and post-modernism, and Pontecorvo as expanding the style’s more incendiary, ground-level spontaneity, its immediate “realism”. But although The Battle of Algiers is a punchy, vicious shiv of a movie, it isn’t merely surface-bound. Or rather, it sometimes uses its surfaces as cryptically and mysteriously as Antonioni, not simply exposing a conflict to us with an incendiary call for action but teasing out the various intangibles and uncertainties in its ability to call for this action, to participate in this conflict, to even see it without mediation. As swift and instant as the film confronts us, it also confounds any so direct a reading by intimating the limits of its ability to “experience” the reality that its verite aesthetic purports to glimpse first-hand.
Which is to say, Pontecorvo’s work reveals mysteries of its own as well, and it exhibits a vision of existence as brutally existential as L’Avventura and as protective of its secrets as Blow-up. And although it’s certainly a white-hot cinematic firebrand, open-hearted and unafraid of its convictions, it also exposes more subterranean depths the more I see it. For instance, the distinctly modernist (even post-modern) composition of the infamous scene where the veiled women expose the bombs hidden within their outfits. The three veiled women are viewed through a mediating, veiling mirror in the film’s most famous shot, the mirror projecting a cinematic self-consciousness about the mediating cinematic process. It suggests that what we experience in cinema is a mirror of ourselves, not a reflection but a warped and thus incomplete refraction, or a reflection which hovers between a direct reality and a displaced representation of that reality. Or, as Homi Bhabha says in the intro to Frantz Fanon’s famous Black Skin, White Masks on images more generally: the “image—as point of identification—marks the site of an ambivalence. Its representation is always spatially split—it makes present something that is absent—and temporally deferred—it is the representation of a time that is always elsewhere, a repetition. The image is only ever an appurtenance to authority and identity; it must never be read mimetically as the “appearance” of a “reality.” (XXX). The women veil themselves, cinema veils them, and post-modern cinema thrives on its skillful manipulation of its own self-awareness about the way it veils reality.
Pontecorvo’s film plays with this gap, this veil between past and present, this sense in which we can witness a mediated past through film, where film is a ghost which touches the past but is not the past. Particularly set against the historical containment of black and African bodies within film scenes, their objectification and imprisonment within frames which tend to view them head-on as curated objects lacking any curiosity or internality or resistance to being viewed, the veiling gestures in Algiers – the characters registering an opacity of their own, not fully acquiescing to our desire to “understand” them – are provocative. In other words, the film comments on its own veiled language, questioning its and our ability to truly know them via its and our gaze, to look at them head-on as the Westerner in Fanon’s frame might want. As gritty and “realistic” as the film appears on the surface, it also veils and unveils itself in various ways, debating truth and fiction in its faux-verite aesthetic rather than merely reminding us of a reality we didn’t know beforehand.
A stark, harrowing portrayal of the Algerian war, The Battle of Algiers is a message movie, but it doesn’t feel like one. It’s brutal, unflinchingly human, and confrontational to the core. It depicts people engaging in horrible acts and forces us to try to make sense of it as best we can, for it knows it cannot. This film never lets up, using a gritty, clear eye-on-the-wall camera to depict the harsh day-to-day realities of colonial and revolutionary violence to force us to confront that which we’re afraid to. Rather than emphasizing philosophy or discussion, it focuses on action and reaction, conveying how this environment, in its perpetual dehumanization, allowed no room for anything else. Colonialism, as depicted here, was a violent regime that dehumanized its victims and gave them no recourse for action excepting the very violence perpetuated onto them. And the film doesn’t suggest it – it burrows it into our soul. It emphasizes gritty, hard-earned hyper-realism and puts us in the trenches of an urban jungle marred by guerrilla warfare. It allows us no comfort. Unlike many Italian masterworks of the 1960s, it is not rooted in impressionist professionalism, carefully modulated for impact and respectability; instead it unleashes itself upon the audience as a primal, implacable fact that doesn’t end when the frames cut it off. It cries out, refusing to be left unheard.
Sympathy toward revolutionary violence isn’t uncommon in movies – in sci-fi it is ubiquitous – but things get muddier and less clear-eyed when the situation approaches too-close-for-comfort. It seems Western society is and has always been keen to stand up for the little man rendered big, omnipresent, and communal in the abstract – when everything is comfortably long ago or far in the future, set in a time that can be appropriated for any cause or purpose. But sympathy toward non-white revolutionaries in the real world is an utmost rarity, verboten material for film to this day. Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 The Battle of Algiers is such a rarity; it strains for objective docu-drama yet still can’t bat down its anguished, melancholy humanism toward the revolutionary Algerians. Especially for a film made with the memory of the revolution being depicted still fresh and unsalted, Pontecorvo’s efforts even for non-sermonizing neutrality come off as somewhat radical, for that too is something revolutionaries never get in this day and age. His heart is undeniably heavy for everyone involved regardless of viewpoint, but it breaks most for the revolutionaries who can’t but fight back with a dogged, tenacious rage.
The Battle of Algiers has often been called the most important act of political filmmaking since Battleship Potemkin, a well-wishing point that stands thematically even if it doesn’t convey what separates the two filmically. It’s easy to compare the two: both deal excitingly and anxiously with chaos and large numbers of people, both are angry with rage at capitalist society, both are bravura cinematic achievements. If Potemkin deals in chaos, however, it’s clearly organized chaos, carefully orchestrated and operatic in its excessive grandeur. Eisenstein was many things, but a naturalist is not among then; his films were ticking time bombs of pent-up fury that functioned like clockwork down to each edit, perfectly fitting for his emphasis on the machination of mankind rendered savior or foe.
Pontecorvo, however, is not Eisenstein. The Soviet filmmaker’s love of inspired chaos and mass movement, the way he found passion in grandiose depictions of large-scale human activity, is here in no small part. But Pontecorvo’s work is far more the by-product of the Italian neo-realist movement he grew up with, and fittingly there’s more Rossellini here than anything else. It’s not quite realism – more like a violent impression of long-suffering pain delivered all at once, not unlike a hyper-realism in that regard, but it is much looser and more free-form than the raw mechanics of an Eisenstein. The fly-on-the-wall designation betrays the effort put into constructing the film’s grimy visual sensibility, but it’s the closest approximation to what Pontecorvo achieves here you’re likely to find.
The greatest achievement of the almost non-narrative form of the film is to capture the endless, formless void that is life in Algiers at this point in time, a place where violence does not so much erupt out of nowhere as become part of the fabric of regular existence. Moments stand out, sure, but worse than the threat of future violence is the ever-present drone of a more perpetual, more insidious social and emotional violence weighing down humanity. In this world where time ceases to hold meaning and life becomes a sort of on-end sigh that knows not the respite of rising and falling action, the film finds a stunning tone poem to a violence that no longer punctuates life but subsumes it.
Pontecorvo’s film is famed today more for its appropriation than anything else; The Black Panthers and the IRA used it at the time of its release as a filmic boot camp, and more recently, and more foggily, US military big-wigs have taken to the film, clearly obfuscating the larger geo-political context and the film’s implicit critique of Western imperialism. Despite the confusion, it is admittedly easy to see why many seek to swallow the film wholesale for their purposes; its intentionally broad, primal depiction of mankind strips the vestiges of society away and replaces it with jungle-like ferociousness that can easily be abstracted to reflect a fable for human purposes, perhaps any purpose. But the film is all concrete energy, aiming for a direct punch that conveys the emotional of human violence more than the stodgy and intellectual. It doesn’t preach; it’s too busy being unsure of what to do with the multitudinous woe boxing it in from every direction, to the point where preaching or even thinking are privileges it lacks. All it can do is watch.
The abstracted impressionism or fable-like quality the film’s timelessness suggests can also belie the very real meta-narrative lurking behind the film and filling its seams with lived-in verisimilitude and mournful rage. Pontecorvo found the film from a loose account of Saadi Yacef’s life as a rebel leader during the Algerian War, and Yacef would go to be cast as El-hadi Jaffar, the film’s rebel leader. Fittingly, he gives a performance of slow-burning rage and mile wide cognitive dissonance, recreating moments of his downfall and decay for the camera with a worried eye and fiery energy. Brahim Baggiag studies under him as a Ali La Pointe, giving an almost non-performance as a radicalized thief to perfectly capture the surreality and crippling, draining nature of living a life as a human punching bag. Their performances are polar opposites, yet Jean Martin finds a third avenue as the coldly calculating inhuman machinery that is Colonel Matthieu, the film’s institutional French leader who couldn’t spew passion and anger if he wanted. It’s all work for him, his life defined by Western conceptions of professional order. He is a man who lives to excuse himself, and to pretend he’s just “doing his job”. For all three, we get little details around the edges, but they mostly play broad types rather than people – perfectly matched to convey how such a dehumanizing struggle renders people broad image rather than feeling human.
Perhaps most compelling is the film’s refusal to sugarcoat the violence committed by the sympathetic Algerians. It is too common in the filmic world to reduce those characters who one sympathizes with, especially when political issues are at stake, to caricatures of goodness. Ultimately, this conforms to a dichotomy all-too-present in mainstream society: those freedom fighters who use non-violent means are valid and sympathetic and those who do utilize violence are simply conforming to the actions of those they are fighting against. Not only does this oversimplify the issue by implying all violence is identical, but it robs revolutionaries of legitimacy for utilizing what were often the only means available to them. For political re-dressment by means of non-violence is a scarce privilege, even when we tell ourselves it isn’t, and even when we pretend other avenues exist. Pontecorvo’s film makes us painfully aware of the situation’s sinister no-win status, where not taking up violence would lead to continue oppression, and taking up violence would lead to untold immediate death and France using the violence as a testament to the need to “fix” Algerians. Blaming revolutionary violence on the revolutionaries is tantamount to blaming individuals for the negative that social oppression pushes onto them. The film doesn’t need this – it achieves a certain knowing sympathy toward the revolutionaries as it watches in disbelief at their need for violence. It cares about them not as non-violents, but as people.
The Battle of Algiers takes us into the trenches of Algiers with an uncomfortable documentary-like starkness, and if it sometimes seems distant and detached, that’s precisely the point. It manages to both submerse us into the conflict and remind us that we, for everything the film does, can’t truly comprehend the dehumanization of the very thing it depicts. This distance was a privilege to no Algerian, and it is still something we as film-goers cherish even while watching an archly “realist” film. And the film’s confusion, about whether to push us right up against the dirt and the violence or to hold back and dispassionately observe, is the dissonant life-blood of its anxious passion: it’s caught in the headlights, stuck in the middle of a war and unsure of how to reveal it to us, so it settles, with equal parts impassioned verve and tired sigh, for trying everything it can in the hopes that someone, anyone, will listen. Thankfully, they did.