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The Battle of Algiers: The Criterion Collection

Whither political cinema? This lament is obviously not intended to address its paucity in the marketplace — as the 2004 presidential election was less than a month out, theaters and especially video-store shelves were choked with a glut of the stuff — but of declining quality. The problem with the current iteration is its intellectual laziness; the films' confrontational methodology is to regurgitate and counterspin images which have already been digested by a large portion of the public, which can be highly ineffective when these images have already been conveyed in a glossy, persuasive manner by the increasingly glitzy cable news channels. As propagandist Robert Greenwald has demonstrated with his rapidly produced exposés of everything from the 2000 presidential election to Fox News, it takes very little skill to slap these DV jeremiads together, which is probably why their appeal is limited to the converted. The real challenge is to channel one's roiling convictions into the crafting of a work that seeks to harness to bracing potential of the cinematic medium. This is the desire that provoked and mobilized the Italian neorealists, whose "take it to the streets" call to arms continues to inspire generations of filmmakers. But even their verisimilitude had a ceiling (though committed to capturing the gritty struggle of the common man, they could not reject the aesthetic beauty of a carefully composed shot), and this placed a cap on the public's interest. A careful approximation of truth would no longer do; in the tense, Cold War atmosphere of the early 1960s, only a "Dictatorship of Truth," as invented by lefty filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo, could jar audiences out of their malaise. He did more than jar them; he made The Battle of Algiers (1965) and set an incendiary standard for "political cinema" that has yet to be matched.

A fusing of the neorealist preference for non-actors and the handheld cinema verité approach popularized by the French New Wave, Pontecorvo's film is a tightly packed powder keg of Marxist sentiment that nonetheless maintains a basic universality through its espousing of a blunt, though undeniably affecting, humanism that mourns the loss of life on both sides in the Algerian struggle for independence from France. Though the film builds a certain level of sympathy for Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), the petty thief who, propelled by the steady indignation inflicted on all occupied people, rose to leader of the resistance (The FLN), and who is seen being ordered out of hiding by the surrounding French authorities at the outset of the film, the most indelible figure in the picture is Colonel Mathieu (professional actor Jean Martin). Outfitted with mirrored sunglasses that cannily reflect the reality to which he and the French military are fatefully blind, Mathieu presses a meticulously reasoned course of action which holds that this insurgency can be put down by swift apprehension and/or killing of the key figures of the resistance. However, discovering their identities and ascertaining their locations will require the use of torture, which is defended as a brutal means justified by its life-sparing ends. After all, the FLN already has resorted to random bombing raids on public places, targeting innocent French civilians in classic terrorist fashion. Though not structured in the classical sense, the narrative does barrel forward with a primal logic to Mathieu's eventual cornering of Ali La Pointe, at which point the French military believes they have completely crushed the resistance. Three years later, their true failure is revealed, as the Algerians take to the streets and begin a new series of demonstrations that will eventually win their nation's independence.

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Do not be fooled by Pontecorvo's dual application of Ennio Morricone's heartbreaking music cue in The Battle of Algiers to express his abhorrence at the loss of life on both sides of the conflict, or by his empathetic portrayal of Colonel Mathieu — this is a film firmly in support of the Algerians' fight for independence. Though Mathieu is, in many ways, the picture's most central figure, he also is the only French character to receive any substantial development. The rest of the cast's major dramatis personae are the insurgents — or, as they would justifiably be called today, terrorists. Also telling in terms of this skewed perspective is the participation of Saadi Yucef, who is a co-producer on the film and, essentially, plays himself as a resistance leader. While this bias is important to identify, it's doubly crucial to not use it as a weapon to delegitimize the picture's message, which is as lucid a warning on the perils of occupation as has ever been filmed. The French authorities err by viewing their opponents as part of a finite band of insurgents; thus, failing to recognize that, by resorting to methods of torture and indiscriminate bombing as inhumane as those inflicted on their own countrymen by the Third Reich, they are committing the classic folly of occupiers, and inadvertently ensuring their ultimate undoing. With the full weight of history behind him, Pontecorvo is able to elevate his film from shallow didactic to a universal tragedy.

The Criterion Collection presents The Battle of Algiers in an outstanding anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with solid monaural Dolby Digital audio. In the classic Criterion fashion, the special features in this phenomenal three-disc set expand on the groundbreaking techniques employed by Pontecorvo, and enhance one's understanding of the conflict that inspired it. Disc Two focuses mostly on Pontecorvo, beginning with "Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth" (37 min.), an Edward Said-hosted documentary from 1992 that yields a number of revealing comments from the director (in particular, that he considers himself a political naïf interested only in "searching for a way to change the terrible things in our world"). Slightly more substantive is the brand new "Marxist Poetry" (51 min.), which includes more interviews with the director and his cast and crew (of note, the title of the documentary is borrowed from Pauline Kael's rave of the film). Also good is "Five Directors" (17 min.), a collection of conversations with Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh, and Oliver Stone, all of whom adore the picture. Disc Three trowels a little deeper into the doomed Algerian colonization with four interesting featurettes, the best of which is "Remembering History" (69 min.), an overview of the long-brewing conflict that recounts the atrocities through recollections from both sides. "Etats d'armes" (28 min.) deals more with the French military's disastrous dabbling in torture, while "The Battle of Algiers: A Case Study" (25 min.) features a discussion between counterterrorism expert (and Bush administration whistleblower) Richard A. Clarke and former State Department member Michael A. Sheehan. Finally, "Gillo Pontecorvo's Return to Algiers" (58 min.) depicts just that. There's also a 56-page booklet boasting essays from film historian Peter Matthews, Saadi Yacef, an interview with Franco Solinas, biographical sketches, and suggestions for further reading. Finally, two trailers and a stills gallery can be found on Disc One. Three-DVD keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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