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With: Jean Martin, Brahim Haggiag, Yacef Saadi, Tommaso Neri
Written by: Gillo Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas
Directed by: Gillo Pontecorvo
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: -99
Date: 03/09/1966

The Battle of Algiers (1965)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Ripped from the Headlines

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

On Sept. 11, 2001 I had two things on my schedule, one was a press conference for the Mill Valley Film Festival, which was cancelled, and the other was a screening of Gillo Pontecorvo's The Wide Blue Road (1957), which was not. "We won't let Osama shut us down," boasted the folks at the Roxie Cinema, who later premiered the revival of Pontecorvo's Technicolor story of life in a fishing village. It's perhaps appropriate that another Pontecorvo film -- the great The Battle of Algiers -- should be re-released in this post-9/11 world, a startling and still-potent view of the double standard of war.

The first thing anyone says about The Battle of Algiers is that it does not contain one foot of newsreel footage, and yet it gets so constantly and dangerously close to killing and combat that it feels stolen and up-to-the-moment.

Set in Algiers during 1954 -1962, the film begins with a flash-forward to 1957, a cinematic kick-starting device that's become all too common today. In it, the French Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin) discovers the hiding place of the final member of the National Liberation Front, Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag).

The film then flashes back to the beginning of the National Liberation Front (or the FLN, which stands for Front de Libération Nationale) and their subsequent acts of terrorism all around Algeria. The most astonishing sequence involves three Arab women who disguise themselves as Europeans to get through the checkpoints stationed all across the city. The women separately enter clubs and cafes populated with young Europeans, quietly plant homemade bombs hidden in bags and baskets and leave.

The moments just before the bombing contain a pregnant power that's still shocking. One woman sits sipping a cola while looking around at the young people who will soon be dead. Her face registers heartbreak and sorrow, but she still musters the power to go through with her plan.

Another great sequence happens after the French -- led by Mathieu -- arrive in Algeria to stop the terrorists. The French corner two Arabs in a second story apartment and coax them into lowering their weapons in a basket. Instead the Arabs plant a bomb and we watch from above as the unknowing French foot soldier waits just below to receive the loaded basket.

Although the French capture all the members of the movement -- Mathieu likens it to killing the head of a tapeworm -- the film ends by jumping forward to 1962, when the people rose again, this time gaining their independence.

Pontecorvo's greatest achievement is not siding with either the French or the Arabs. Though he shows the French being killed viciously, he also reveals the underhanded tactics, such as torture, that they used to win.

In an early scene, the young, idealistic Ali La Pointe discusses the future success or failure of the revolution with an older FLN member. The older man asserts that it's difficult to form a revolution; it's even more difficult to keep it going and still more difficult to win. And if you do win, that's when the real problems start. One possible scenario in The Battle of Algiers is that if the French hadn't intervened, the movement might have burned out all by itself.

Which brings us to current events, and the reason that The Battle of Algiers is still vital. Rialto pictures will be releasing a restored print to various theaters around the country -- it plays Feb. 13-26 at the Castro Theater in San Francisco -- and a Criterion Collection DVD release will eventually follow. See it if you want a new perspective on the world.

The Criterion Collection has released this film on DVD in 2004 in a stunning 3-disc Special Edition. Disc 1 comes with a new high-definition digital transfer with restored image and sound, supervised by cinematographer Marcello Gratti and enhanced for widescreen televisions, plus theatrical and re-release trailers, a poster gallery, and a new and improved English subtitle translation.

Disc 2 comes with The Making of The Battle of Algiers, a new documentary created by Pontecorvo biographer Irene Bignardi, The Dictatorship of Truth, a 37-minute documentary narrated by Edward Said about the relationship between Pontecorvo's politics and filmmaking style, and five directors (Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh, and Oliver Stone) discuss the film.

Disc 3 comes with Remembering History a new documentary featuring interviews with historians Alistair Horne, Hugh Roberts and Benjamin Stora, former FLN members Zohra Drif-Bitat, Mohammed Harbi and Saadi Yacef, and writer and torture victim, Henri Alleg (The Question); Etats d'Armes, a 30-minute excerpt from Patrick Rotman's 3-part documentary, L'Ennemi Intime, which focuses on the horror of the French-Algerian War; How to Win the Battle But Lose the War of Ideas, a conversation about the contemporary relevance of The Battle of Algiers between former National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism and author of "Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror," Richard A. Clarke, former State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Michael A. Sheehan, and Chief of Investigative Projects for ABC News, Christopher E. Isham; Return to Algiers (1992, 55 minutes), a booklet featuring a new essay by film scholar Peter Matthews, a reprinted interview with writer Franco Solinas, brief biographies on the key figures in the French-Algerian War, and more.

In 2011, Criterion followed their awesome DVD release with a deluxe new Blu-Ray edition, consisting of most of the same extras, but condensed onto two discs. On films this old, the experience is similar to watching an actual projected film print.

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