Films involving armed conflict so very often follow a familiar course: good guys vs. the bad guys, with the former doing no wrong in the eyes of audiences who will them to destroy their aggressors. Then we have Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle Of Algiers, which is set during the 1954-62 Franco-Algerian conflict and covers events that tooks place between 54-57.
Algeria's fight for colonialism pitches Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) into the centre of a struggle that claimed many lives on both sides of the void.
With the National Liberation Front (FLN) seemingly out of control, Matheau Phillipe (Jean Martin) arrives with his force of armed paratroopers, intent on breaking some fierce resistance, using intelligence sources and interrogation by torture to identify and eliminate key figures in the opposition.
Gillo Pontecorvo's film shows atrocities committed by both sides, adopting a non-judgemental stance from start to finish: if we recoil at Phillipe's methods of extracting information, it's just as hard to witness the FLN using women and children to assist in terrorist operations that kill and maim many innocent people. Of course, in war no-one's right, and The Battle Of Algiers drives home this point relentlessly with intensely moving scenes showing the bloody aftermath of bombs and bullets. It's during these scenes that Ennio Morricone's soundtrack reaches its most glorious heights, soaring above the sights of the dead and dying as men, women and children lie motionless amidst the ruins of cafes and bars which, minutes earlier, were alive with the sounds of conversation and laughter: rarely can this great composer have committed his music to such upsetting imagery.
Taken from a historical perspective, The Battle Of Algiers serves as an important document of the Algerian armed insurrection (cast member and producer Yacef Saadi was a senior FLN leader), and is also very much a film for the troubled times we currently live through. Pontecorvo's documentary slant on proceedings often gives his film a fly-on-the-wall feel, but it also works on other levels, practically entering thriller territory on several occasions: Algerian women (the 'untouchables') racing against time, carrying 25 minute short-fuse bombs; children luring French officers to their doom; the hunt for a quartet of men upon whom the survival of the FLN depends. It's often nail-biting stuff and if one is sometimes willing the FLN to succeed, the results of their efforts may well engender a feeling of guilt for those feelings.
Argent Films' debut DVD release bestows reverential treatment on ths film, with an extensive restoration process delivering a transfer that's mostly sharp as a tack, with bags of detail in both day and night scenes that do full justice to the excellent monochrome photography.Thanks to the participation of Film Four, this is also the most complete version available.
During the course of an 18 minute interview, Gillo Pontecorvo talks about the making of his film, and explains why he chose to work with non-professional actors (save for Jean Martin, who reaches the zenith of a great performance during a press conference with his opposite number); runs through the difficulties encountered with shooting crowd scenes, and also relates a nice story involving Morricone.
A glance at Argent's forthcoming releases reveals some of the greats in world cinema: Godard, Chabrol, Visconti, Fellini, together with cult classics such as Salon Kitty. This splendid debut release suggests these international treasures are in entirely safe hands.