Battle of Algiers Review

In the early morning, tired French paratroopers exchange knowing glances. The suspect they've been torturing all night long has finally cracked, telling them where Ali La Pointe, the last leader of the FLN in freedom. By the end of the day, they will have crushed the rebellion led by the FLN, a popular movement of Algerian nationalists seeking independence from France. Following the humiliation of Dien Bien Phu, the French government seems far too eager to prove to the world and themselves that they will remain a colonial power. Over the last few months, the Battle for Algiers has been unfolding with a rare determination on both sides. Terrorist attacks from the FLN, systematic torture by the French. Both sides have been increasingly looking like two groggy sluggers unable to land the suckerpunch that will end the fight...until now.

Though many talk about the Vietnam syndrome suffered by the US, France seems to have its own Algerian syndrome though in France's case, it was probably far more complex than just waging a war they could not win. Generations had left metropolitan French to live in Algeria, becoming known as the Pieds-Noirs (Black Feet) due to their military boots - for all purposes, Algeria was just another French département albeit one with a rather strange voting system which weighted the Pieds-Noirs disproportionately against the Algerian vote. The film solely recounts the Battle of Algiers which was a pivotal chapter in the whole war but not in fact the deciding battle. The paradoxical aspect of it has not been lost on the US military. According to the New York Times, the Pentagon recently organised a viewing of The Battle of Algiers inviting the military big-wigs to see how you can win a war but lose the peace. Whether George W. Bush turned up or not was not reported, given the profound effect Kandahar had on him, we can assume he didn't. Though based on the memoirs of an FLN leader, the film is amazingly balanced and though Pontecorvo obviously has a great sympathy for the Algerian fight for freedom, he remains even handed throughout the film, giving it a documentary-like feel. Despite this, Truffaut and Cartier-Bresson walked out of the Venice film festival in disgust and the film was subsequently banned in France for six more years. When it finally was released, the Parisian cinema showing it was bombed and in a provincial town, some irate people entered the local cinema and destroyed the film print. Even in modern France, it is only in recent years that France has started to recover from its national amnesia and start to face the reality of what happened.

Though controversy has often managed to give rather dire films cult status, The Battle of Algiers survives the hype with a nonchalant swagger. Granted parallels with Peter Watkins or Costa-Gavras are unavoidable but Pontecorvo's style is very much his own - hard hitting and direct. Though he claimed that he did his best to make it look as realistic as possible, it is sometimes hard not to admire the cinematography or the script which manages to keep a strong narrative arc. The inclusion of slightly irrelevant events add to the film's "real" ambiance; within the first five minutes, the film's spontaneity will have had its effect and with Ennio Morricone's beautifully simple score, the viewer cannot help but feel drawn in.

The characters are in fact almost all historically accurate with the book's author, Yacef Saadi, playing his own role (though he's called Djafar in the film). The only one who isn't, is the Colonel Mathieu, a character drawn from various other French high-ranking military. He is also the sole lead character to be played by a professional actor; the rest of the cast was selected mostly for their appearance rather than their acting abilities.

Though Pontecorvo never hid his pro-FLN leanings, it is rather strange how clear-sighted and fair it is, despite only having the benefit of ten years hindsight. The Colonel Mathieu is not shown as a butcher (which would have not been completely unfair) but an honourable, human-faced military who is doing his best to complete the job he's been given. The horrors on both sides are portrayed vividly leaving no-one doubting the terrible savagery of attacking civilian targets. 40 years after its initial release, The Battle of Algiers stands tall as a masterpiece of the genre and one of political cinema's most effective films.

The DVD:

The image:
Though the casual viewer may think the print used was rather poor, you will have to take into account that the director intentionally damaged the reels to trick the viewer into believing it was archival footage from that period. Due to this, there's plenty of visible speckles and other kinds of print damage but that is how it's supposed to look. The layer change is also placed rather clumsily in the middle of a fast paced scene and sticks out quite noticeably making Morricone's music miss a beat. That said we do get an anamorphic transfer which is an undeniable plus and the transfer itself shows few flaws and nice contrasts.

The sound:
The sound is simple mono. Some scenes however seem to have lip-synch issues though that was probably due to the original overdubs being less than perfect. Overall, there's little major damage to the sound bar the occasional dropout and nothing to spoil the enjoyment of the film.

The subtitles:
These are a good English translation and are non-compulsory. They keep up with the dialogue and tend to transcribe almost all that is being said.

The extras:
The main extra is a 20 minute interview with Pontecorvo which is subtitled in English (as he speaks Italian during the interview). He's quite a garrulous chap with loads of anecdotes about the film and how he co-wrote the soundtrack with Morricone - in fact the 20 minutes go by too fast and you're left wishing he could have talked for longer.

Added to this there's a substantial amount of stills from the movie which will be of relative interest to most viewers but are a nice addition.

Though the image could have probably been better, the mere fact of releasing this film on DVD is something Argent Films should be applauded for - the bonus of the extras is an undeniable plus. Given that this is their first release, we can hope they will be releasing more gems of this kind onto our favourite format.

Futher reading:
For those wanting to know more about the Algerian War, I thoroughly recommend Alistair Horne's recently re-published A Savage War of Peace, probably the most definitive and readable account of the events.

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