The Battle of Algiers is one of those movies that turns up on “essential cinema” lists, and rightly so, although it is not without its faults. Its treatment of its subject matter is so definitive that it would be hard for any future remake to top it.
The Algerian/Italian film is about the guerilla war fought in the city of Algiers in the late 1950s between the local population wanting independence and the French who had occupied the region since 1830. (For a brief history lesson, read the last paragraph of this review.)
Terrorists and Freedom Fighters
The movie looks at several characters. In a bookending story, Ali (Brahim Haggiag) hides in a wall while the authorities close in on him. The bulk of the film flashes back to show how Ali rose from street hood to the highest level of the FLN, the National Liberation Front.
The movie takes tangents to show a colonel (Jean Martin), the leader of the French forces, who fights the guerillas with a resigned determination — after giving an essential primer on the organization of terrorist organizations, he concedes that history is on the FLN’s side.
The Battle of Algiers also also takes 15 minutes to show a sequence of three women planting bombs around the city. It illustrates how ineffective checkpoints are against a determined foe.
The movie covers half a decade, and some of these tangents are only held together by a thread. Where a modern remake might try to weave the threads together by cross-cutting, The Battle of Algiers takes its time and lets each vignette play out. Maybe it’s a little clumsy at presenting the whole, but there’s a sort of implied honesty and earnestness in its unpolished feel.
In fact, many critics point out that the film embraces neorealist aesthetics such as handheld photography and untrained, local actors. These decisions may have been financial, but they also make the movie more effective. The movie is often noted for its “documentary” feel. The handheld photography lets you see The Casbah from ground level. It puts you among the crowds, and you feel very present in the action.
Ennio Morricone’s expressive music reminds you this is a dramatic film, not a documentary. The movie does choose sides, but at different times it chooses both sides. In one scene, adventure music plays over a montage of guerillas shooting cops and then disappearing into the crowd. When the authorities retaliate by bombing a building, the music becomes a sympathetic, sorrowful orchestra.
If anything, the movie chooses the side of the victims, and in a terrorist war, that’s both sides. Only a few scenes later, when the guerillas have bombed buildings in the French part of town, the same sympathetic music plays over a parallel scene of wreckage — the same devastation but done by the other side. The movie says that things are not black-and-white, they are both black and white, and every shade in-between.
Timeless as Terror
The Battle of Algiers still resonates today, and probably always will. Terrorism and foreign occupation are constants of history. As if to prove the point, I saw this movie on same day as a French film called Bon Voyage, which is set during a period when France itself was being occupied by a foreign power.
P.S. For those of you as ignorant of this time and place as I was, here’s a quick overview. Algeria is a mostly-Muslim country in North Africa between Morocco and Tunisia. Algiers is the capital city, on the coast of the Mediterranean. The city is ancient — dating back almost 3,000 years. It has fallen, risen, and changed hands several times since then. The French took over in 1830 as part of their African empire and were defeated by the local Muslim population, who won independence in 1960. Algiers is where you can find The Casbah, an ancient maze-like part of the city with narrow streets and alleys going in all directions — including up and down. The complexity of the geography makes it a good place to wage a guerilla war against outsiders, or to set a movie.