Politics: Post Podcast Homework
On this week’s podcast, Sam and I discussed political films, and the discussion got a bit… well, political. Here’s a film we didn’t touch on: The Battle of Algiers; a controversial Italian masterpiece that was banned for five years in France, and heavily censored in the UK and US, until the full version was released some years later. These days, the film tends to be revered, essential viewing in film scholar circles rather than amongst general audiences. But it shouldn’t be merely the purview of cineastes. The Battle of Algiers deserves much wider acclaim.
Although associated with the latter days of the Italian neo-realist movement (think Bicycle Thieves or Rome Open City), this film was also hugely influential on later “docu-dramas” (if you’ll forgive my use of an obscenity). Indeed, the documentary tone and near faultless historical accuracy throughout is what gives the film it’s extraordinary power and immediacy.
Director Gillo Pontecorvo chronicles the colonial French suppression of the 1950s Algerian uprising with admirable even handedness. There is no melodrama or histrionics. The plight of each side is clearly laid out, and sympathies are invited for both factions. Whether the horrors of shop bombings, or the horrors of suspects being tortured, this makes absolutely no concessions to easy answers. Instead it invites the viewer to reel at the appalling futility of war.
On the Algerian side, the main character Ali la Pointe (Brahim Hadjadi), an illiterate criminal drifter politicised in prison, represents the revolutionary spirit in his idealism and ruthlessness. The other principle protagonist, Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin) is assigned by the French government with the task of quelling the revolution. This he does with equal ruthlessness, with near cavalier confidence (particularly in two key sequences - a street parade, and a press conference), and with no shred of apology, defending whatever tactics he feels are necessary.
The afore-mentioned torture scenes are brutally frank, almost indifferent in their depiction of eye-watering moments. Waterboarding, torso blowtorching, electrodes on earlobes, and so on, are all shown without any kind of editorialising or polemic, nor any self-conscious dramatising. They could almost be part of an instruction film, explaining “how-to” to trainee torturers. Indeed, The Battle of Algiers has been shown within terrorist groups, police and the military as part of training programmes. In 2004, it was even given a special screening at the Pentagon to inform strategy in Iraq. Goodness knows what conclusions the Department of Defence drew from the film, and how it might have influenced policy with captured terror suspects.
Ultimately the French managed to suppress the revolution, but it was a pyrrhic victory. In 1962, after a resurgence from the Algerians, they finally won their independence. Perhaps 1966 was too soon for what was still a raw nerve in the French consciousness, and that is why the film was banned there until 1971. Either way, The Battle of Algiers remains a vital, utterly compelling piece of political cinema fully deserving of your attention.