'Battle of Algiers' Still Gripping In Restored New Print
Oscar-nominated 1966 Italian-Algerian film runs through Thursday at Ken Cinema
When Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Battle of Algiers” opened in 1966, the neo-realist film about Algerian resistance fighters in French-occupied Algiers stunned audiences with its energy, filmmaking technique and even-handed look at the violence done by both sides.
Beloved of revolutionaries and those who study counter-insurgency alike, the film has stirred up discussion and controversy ever since its initial release. Rumors are that the Irish Republican Army studied it, and the Pentagon is known to have screened it just prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Fifty years later, “Battle for Algiers” is back for a limited run in a new 4K digital restoration that presents a cleaner image as well as new translations with more readable subtitles. The film’s distributor, Rialto Pictures, told me by email that the “state-of-art 4K enables classic to be projected in cinemas worldwide for the foreseeable future.”
The timing couldn’t be more apt. According to Rialto, the 4K version’s release is pegged to the major fall festivals: Venice, where it premiered in 1966; New York, where it had been the opening new selection in 1967; and Toronto. Banned in France for five years after its initial release, the film was hailed as a masterpiece of Italian neo-realism. What was lesser known was that it also marked that start of the Algerian national film industry, one of the most prolific in the post-Independence Arab world.
Interestingly enough, the 2016 release also coincides with two other anniversaries: the 10th anniversary of Gillo Pontecorvo’s death in 2006 at the age of 86, and the fifth anniversary of the uprisings of the Arab Spring.
Half a century after its initial opening, “The Battle of Algiers” is still one of the most mesmerizing films on occupation and resistance. Although, as the original U.S. disclaimer said, there is not one frame of news footage, the film feels gritty and ripped from real reportage.
And well it should, based as it is on the memoirs of Algerian resistance fighter Saadi Yacef (also in the film), interviews with French troops who fought in Algeria, in addition to the the memories of the people of Algiers themselves.
The film opens with French paratroopers torturing an Algerian fighter to get him to reveal the location of resistance leader, Ali La Pointe and several others, crouching in a hiding space in a wall. They are the last of the resistance cells and have only seconds to decide if they will give themselves up or be blown to pieces with the rest of the building.
From there, the story flashes back to follow Ali La Pointe (a dynamic turn by non-actor Brahim Haggiag), a young hustler who joins the resistance after seeing the French guillotine an Algerian nationalist in jail, and the more polished National Liberation Front (FLN) leader, Djafar (Saadi Yacef playing a version of himself) as the FLN steps up resistance to the 130-year occupation.
The setting is Algiers, the capital of French Algeria; the time, between 1953-57, when Algerians, tired of asking for independence, decide to demand it in one of the most important acts of resistance during the Algerian war. The FLN come down from the Casbah, the poor, indigenous quarters above the Europeanized city, to sow terror and fear through bombs planted in popular gathering places and the assassination of policemen who control the Arab population's every move.
Ali and Djafar direct much of the resistance both within and outside the Casbah. In response, the French impose martial law and send in the urbane and cultured Lt. Col. Mathieu who descends on the Casbah like an avenging angel. To reporters who question his methods, Mathieu responds, “if you want Algeria to remain French, you must be ready to accept the necessary consequences.”
Among those consequences are the torture of detainees to ferret out the cells and the destruction of the closely built houses of those who would keep the FLN’s secrets.
When the Casbah openly defies Mathieu with a strike, he strikes back, mercilessly invading the narrow streets and driving the FLN cells to ground.
In a riveting scene near the end, the residents of the Casbah stand on their rooftops, hands out in prayer, waiting to see if Ali and the remaining members of his cell will acquiesce to Mathieu’s request to surrender or choose to be blown up, along with the house.
As the film points out, Mathieu may have won the battle, but in 1962, it is the Algerians who win the war. In a last ecstatic scene, hundreds of Algerians descend into Algiers proper — the throbbing trill of the celebrating women fills the screen (and the theater) as Algerians dance with makeshift Algerian flags and defy the French troops, to mark the birth of the Algerian nation.
"The Battle of Algiers” is one of those rare films that both holds up and yet is surpassed by the actions it presaged. As one of the first films made shortly after independence, it has a resonance that reaches into today’s events such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq, with startling clarity. However, some viewers may find the torture scenes and even the bomb planting a little stylized, especially after having already seen similar torture scenes on the news reports about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
The new print itself is beautiful — the graininess is preserved along with the complex lighting of the long shots and the lovely depth of close-ups. The only drawback is the audio. For some reason, in the print that is currently playing at the Ken, the dialog is off by 20 or more seconds in several places, which is surprising in a restored print.
Nonetheless, for Mohammed Hadj Smain, 84, the production supervisor for “The Battle of Algiers,” the re-release of the new print is a wonderful confirmation of what the Algerian and Italian crews were trying to achieve. Smain, now living in Algeria, spoke to me through his son, Anouar Smain, an independent producer and film director living in Los Angeles.
According to Smain, the intent of the Algerian government and the nascent film industry was simple. "We wanted to show a universal story about injustice, about people’s suffering and the vulnerability of the Algerians themselves," Smain said.
Smain said he was surprised by the film’s longevity and how it has appealed to such a variety of people. However, he added that he was pleased as it highlights the atrocities of occupation and war in general.
Smain was in his early 30s when he joined the production. An actor by training, he jumped at the chance to be part of the film.
“It was a little chaotic,” Smain remembered. “We really had no script. We would talk out a scene in the morning and then Saadi would come in and change things up.”
Smain’s job was to keep the storyline and the look as even-keeled as possible since Yacef would often want to mainly show the Algerians. Smain would often make small suggestions to help create balance between the portrayals of the French and the FLN.
“We [the Algerians and Pontecorvo] wanted to make the film humanly natural,” Smain said. "We wanted as many non-actors as possible.”
Indeed, most of the non-actor Algerians in the film played either themselves or versions of known FLN members.
According to Smain, who went on to act in some of Algeria’s top films, it was a chance for the Algerians to express themselves.
“At this time, the war and violence were very fresh in people’s minds,” he said.
For Smain, the re-release of the film comes at an important time for Algerian youth living in a post-Arab Spring reality.
“A lot of the heroes [of the revolution] are nameless — it’s important for the young people [who have grown up in a free Algeria] to learn about and to know what motivated these sacrifices.
"There really is un seul heros, le people [a single hero, the people],” he added, citing a slogan written on the walls of the Casbah shortly after the revolution.
As for the Italian director, Pontecorvo, himself a veteran of the resistance against the Nazis, what he hoped for was a portrayal of power and resistance, with the people as the center. What he created was a film that has stirred up discussion and controversy for more than 50 years.
Smain said, “Pontecorvo probably didn’t realize the film would have these repercussions.”
"The Battle for Algiers” continues at the Ken Cinema through Thursday. The film is in French and Arabic with subtitles. Check with the Ken for date and times.