Tuesday, June 01, 2004

The Battle Of Algiers (La Battaglia di Algeri)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 30 May 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

A taut, tense, look at the battle between an occupied country and the occupying power, The Battle of Algiers does an excellent job of giving the audience a clear view of events and allowing them to draw their own conclusions. This film could be mistaken for a documentary if not for the trailer's proclamation that "not a single frame of documentary footage" was used and the equally uncompromised view of both sides' actions.

Telling a story like this with detachment means selecting one's endpoints carefully. We never see how the Algerian rebels justify terrorism, any political discussion back in Paris about whether France should be in North Africa, or whether any of the participants later faced a court for the brutal means used to fight this war. To a certain extent, this distances us from the characters, with scant information given on Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), head of the French forces, or Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggjag) and Daffar (Saadi Yacef), the operational and ideological leaders of the revolutionaries. We're told of Mathieu's war record, and that Ali was in trouble with the law for a long time, but little more than that.

It does not, however, make us so detached that the violence is any less disturbing. Indeed, it's even more unnerving to watch three women style their hair and dress in Western clothing so that they can casually infiltrate a soda shop and place a bomb that will kill dozens. There's some sense of the contempt these militants must feel, watching a bunch of Europeans laugh it up while treating the country's people as just servants, but that's not enough for most to feel it's actually justified. Similarly, the movie doesn't flinch from showing the French forces torturing captives, and while the colonel's explanation seems weak, it makes a certain amount of unemotional sense.

The print shown at the Brattle was freshly-struck, with a new translation and new subtitles. It looked crisp, accurately presenting the grainy black-and-white footage shot on handheld cameras to create a documenatry feel. It is, of course, relevant today, as one need only turn on the news to be exposed to a more contemporary version of the basic story, but I wager that there would be few times in human history when these conditions weren't reproduced somewhere. They just have seldom been reproduced and retold as clearly as they are in this film.

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