Being rather oblivious to the relations between France and Algeria as well as the battle of Algiers, this documentary-style film proved to be an enlightening and thoroughly engaging historical exercise. I certainly cannot corroborate all the facts, but the reality is, The Battle of Algiers is one of the most well-paced films that I have ever seen coming out of Europe. There is a great deal of drama, harrowing intensity, and it all brings up numerous political questions that parallel the world we live in even to this day.
It’s the story of 1950s Algeria and specifically the Casbah Muslim district of the city. It is there between 1954 to 1957 that the National Liberation Front waged war against their perceived oppressors from France. And they certainly had a point that imperialism has left an indelible mark on them. However, their own strategies include bombings and assassination that utilize civilians and people loyal to the front. You don’t know when the next attack will come, and they sweep across the land like wildfire. The leaders of the FLN include the fiery Ali la Pointe and El-hadi Jafar, who recruited la Pointe early on. A Lieutenant Colonel named Mathieu is brought in to bring down the enemy, but it proves to be a difficult task since the FLN, much like a tapeworm, will never die until the head is destroyed. Otherwise, it’s extremities will keep rebuilding in the form of loyal underlings.
The film is rather shocking in its straightforward depiction of violence, whether it be bombed buildings, gunfights in the streets, or French authorities being gunned down by insurgents. Somehow these images feel still very relevant to the contemporary age. You have the imperialists clashing horns with the locals. There’s racial profiling. Women and children are involved in the violence just as much as anyone else, and destruction pervades the public squares. There is no refuge from bomb or evil. Anyone coming around a corner could be carrying a bomb or looking to shoot you when you least expect it. Really it is amazing that a film like this was even made, and it was undoubtedly a lightning rod for controversy.
In the film’s epilogue, the unrest continues and it is finally noted that Algeria did eventually receive their independence. The French may have won the battle, but they ultimately lost the war. The audience is left to develop their own opinions about this conclusion. As for me, I find Gillo Pontecorvo’s film fascinating, because he takes a point of view that does not seem especially biased. This is not noticeably propaganda in its depiction, but instead, it is a thought-provoking document of civil unrest developing questions on war and race relations. Maybe we can even learn something from it as well in this modern age that still includes so much human conflict.