To understand the full scope of The Battle of Algiers, you have to pay attention to the faces.
The film is set during the Algerian War of the 1950s, as France’s occupying forces try to root out a network of militant cells seeking Algerian independence. Very early on, we witness French paratroopers raiding a home in the Muslim quarter of the title city. Hiding behind a false wall are two men, a woman, and a child. As the camera pans slowly across their faces, lingering on each individual expression, we’re forced to recognize the humanity of these people—never mind that they’ve been cornered (in their own house, mind you) like rats.
Contrast that with the faces we see a few scenes later, during a flashback sequence to the youth of Ali La Pointe, one of those hiding behind that wall. On the run from French police for gambling in the streets, Ali (Brahim Hadjadj) is tripped by a preppy French expatriate standing on the sidewalk. When Ali retaliates with a punch, the French crowd surrounds him and begins beating him. This time the camera quickly rushes by the angry faces of the attackers, blending them in a hateful blur.
You might think, at this point, that the lines have clearly been drawn: French bad, Algerians good. Not so fast. Once released from juvenile prison (where he witnesses a fellow Algerian executed by guillotine), Ali joins the National Liberation Front. The group employs terror tactics, such as having women, dressed in Western fashion, plant bombs at civilian spots in the European sector of the city. After one bomb is left in a purse at a chic cafe, the camera cuts to the clock on the wall, and then takes time to present close-ups of a handful of the patrons. The French are people too.
The close-ups are a marked departure from what is otherwise a mostly docudrama approach. For most of The Battle of Algiers, director Gillo Pontecorvo employs handheld cameras, location shooting, and unprofessional actors, striving for verisimilitude. Yet the use of those faces, more than any sense of documentary distance, reveals that The Battle of Algiers is as “objective” as any movie on such a subject could probably be. It’s not left or right, conservative or liberal, but humanist. If the film seems to ultimately fall on the side of the Algerians (and indeed it was banned in France for five years), it does so while acknowledging the nastiness of the National Liberation Front. When the resistance bombs civilians and the occupiers torture prisoners, no one can claim the moral high ground.
As such, The Battle of Algiers’ continued relevance is both a point of fascination and something to mourn. Thirty-five years before the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Pontecorvo’s film gave us a cinematic blueprint of how Western oppression in the Muslim world could lead to radicalization and terror. The United States, at least, took little heed. And even after 9/11, official policy has largely been to continue the cycle of violence. Meanwhile, American movies are still trying to keep up with The Battle of Algiers. For every Zero Dark Thirty (which, in the light of The Battle of Algiers, looks even more like an exposé of military-employed torture), we get a handful of Lone Survivors—movies only concerned with, and largely uncritical of, the American perspective on the country’s foreign misadventures.
The close-ups are a marked departure from what is otherwise a mostly docudrama approach.
Let’s return to 1966. Released in that year (only a few years after the Algerian War concluded), The Battle of Algiers functions as a formidable blending of two mid-century film movements. In its docudrama elements, the movie harkens back to Italian neorealism and the likes of The Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. (Like those films, The Battle of Algiers has an eye for architecture, capturing the way buildings and alleys are crucial in forming social structure.) At the same time, there are flourishes that recall the French New Wave, particularly during the opening-credits sequence. The paratroopers’ raid unfolds in a series of jump cuts, accompanied by a propulsive Ennio Morricone score (both he and Pontecorvo contributed to the soundtrack). It is only in touches such as these, along with those close-ups, that we remember we’re not watching newsreel footage, but a carefully constructed fiction film.
The Battle of Algiers features a coda that jumps a few years ahead to the final days of the revolution. A crowd of protesters has taken over the streets. (Like all the crowd scenes in the film, this one has an electrifying shiver that feels both exciting and dangerous.) Amidst the chaos, the camera keeps returning to one woman’s face, as she frantically waves a handmade flag bearing a star and crescent. That image represents this remarkable movie in a nutshell: formally audacious and presciently geopolitical, The Battle of Algiers nevertheless puts personhood at the forefront.