I’ve long been suspicious of universal canons in arts like movies and literature and music. I’m fine with telling you what movies I think you should watch, but I operate from my personal perspective, and don’t mean to claim any insight into what belongs in the Canon of Everyone.
But I’m going to say straight out: The Battle of Algiers, about the Algerian War of Independence, deserves to be in whatever canon you offer up. Apparently ragged, with the faux-documentary style that in lesser hands muddies more than it illuminates, The Battle of Algiers addresses a topic timely in 1966 and timely in 2015: insurrection.
Pontecorvo is usually lauded for the verisimilitude of the filmmaking here. Supposedly, groups on every side of possible revolution (from the Black Panthers and the IRA to the U.S. Pentagon) have studied The Battle of Algiers for insight and instruction. This speaks to the seeming reality of what is on the screen, and it is indeed a remarkable film for that reason. I think one result of this is that Pontecorvo is praised for making his movie look realistic in the manner of Italian neorealism, while ignoring other aspects of the film that also illustrate Pontecorvo’s strengths. Specifically, he has a way of directing crowd scenes that far surpasses most of what we see in films.
We’ve all seen movies that use a low budget and non-actors to create an illusion of documentary realism. However big the themes, these movies are often determined to show off a smallness of visual sense, as if anything larger would give the lie to the illusion of realism. Pontecorvo doesn’t have this problem. He can move large groups of people around in such a way as to seem both like casually-shot documentary footage and planned choreography. This doesn’t look “fake”, either ... we’re not talking Busby Berkeley. The IMDB tells us, “Although the mass scenes look spontaneous, it took quite some planning to make them look that way. Director Gillo Pontecorvo would often draw chalk lines on the ground, dividing the mass in separate groups which had to start walking on cue in order to get proper crowd movement.” (You can also see Pontecorvo’s work in this area in his film Burn!, where he uses color to great advantage.)
Pontecorvo also manages to be, if not impartial, at least understanding of both sides. The French have their reasons for putting down the rebellion, and by using Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the film, to play the local leader of the French forces, Pontecorvo gives us a calm and focused presentation of the French side. Martin convinces us that torture is necessary. (He is also the only Frenchman who seems to understand where history is headed, which makes him even more reasonable, even as he acts to forestall the march of history.)
Pauline Kael famously said, “The Battle of Algiers is probably the only film that has ever made middle-class audiences believe in the necessity of bombing innocent people”, continuing, “perhaps because Pontecorvo made it a tragic necessity.” The French colonel may be reasonable, but his actions are disturbing enough that we want to see revenge taken. In this, and in other ways, Pontecorvo is clearly on the side of the insurrection. But he knows there is a human cost to the actions on both sides ... a tragic necessity. In the film’s most famous sequence, three women plant bombs in public places. We see their committed yet concerned faces. We see the faces of the people who are about to die. We see the explosions. Public acts made in the name of the masses, but personalized by the focus on the women and the victims.
In earlier times, I hesitated from giving The Battle of Algiers my highest rating. Now, I have no idea what I was thinking. #60 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10. For a companion piece, see the aforementioned Burn!, with Marlon Brando.