Review: _The Battle of Algiers_

There are some films and novels that create such a unique conceit that that originality takes on a life of its own. A conceit is "an organizing theme or concept" (Merriam-Webster). In the case of The Battle of Algiers, the organizing conceit is director Gillo Pontecorvo's audacious decision to cast only one professional actor in the film -- in a 122-minute feature, no less.

By having untrained actors dominate nearly all scenes in the film, the spontaneous, random, chaotic feel of terrorism and revolution gets represented realistically. Instead of the deer-in-the-headlights look of the actors detracting from the story, instead the viewer interprets the constant vacillation that must follow from indiscriminate violence. In an urban revolution, who really knows what is happening? There is no plan but random violence designed to strike fear into the mind of the occupier.

Pontecorvo's storytelling works masterfully, recalling early Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera. Essentially, this tradition in filmmaking seeks to undercut the concept of the individualistic character and replace him with a kind of zeitgeist or "life force" that drives the decisions and morality of people. While Vertov sought to illustrate the beauty of proletarian industrial life and how community works together, Pontecorvo instead depicts the ebb and flow of violent insurrection.

Ever read a book or watch a film where one gets frustrated at not knowing the name of a given character? This happens to me often. In The Battle of Algiers, this is what you are supposed to be doing. Characters fulfill "public roles" while their private decisions follow the precise and predetermined esprit du temps (French: spirit of times) of a revolution and counterrevolution. This recalls the social realism often seen in Marxist film and literature, which I find much more intriguing than character-driven narrative, except in its best form, such as Shakespeare's Othello. But even in Shakespeare, events are so beyond the force of individual will that tragedy falls like Sisyphus' rock down the hill once again.

In interpreting events as mundance as one's life or the 2008 American Presidential Election, I find this perspective -- that our decisions are so narrow as to be nearly predetermined -- most accurate. "It was written in the cards," as Bob Dylan writes. Further, this perspective strikes me as anti-sentimental, so, like Smucker's jam, it has to be good.

Nevertheless, The Battle of Algiers has memorable characters and unforgettable scenes. Ali la Pointe, an illiterate, unemployed laborer comes to be the hero of the revolution because of his unthinking brutality. The revolution's leader, Jafar, brings rational decisionmaking the horrors of revolution: most shocking is how French policemen are shot in the back while sipping coffee. Worse still is the willingness of three attractive Arab women to bomb completely harmless French civilian hangouts like a dance club, bar, and horse track -- with bombs planted in their handbags.

Bloodthirsty racism breaks out; military strategist Colonel Mathieu uses torture to defeat the decentralized revolutionary structure; gun battles break out in tiny urban streets; the Arab populace goes about its daily life peacefully only to shout the locations of the French enemy. No one trusts anyone; martial law puts walls and checkpoints around the entire Arab ghetto, reminiscent of Sadr City in Iraq and the Palestinian Territories outside of Israel.

The Battle of Algiers depicts all of these themes and events realistically with an unflinching anti-sentimentality that neither approves nor disapproves of the sides in the Algerian War. Its lessons regarding colonialism and insurrection should instruct us: although the French won the battle, in using torture and overpowering their subaltern foe, they lost the war.
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