Life During Wartime

Truth and consequences: Saadi Yacef (second from left) and Brahim Haggiag (right) in 'The Battle of Algiers'
Photo courtesy British Film Institute/Rialto Pictures

During a break from watching a videotape of Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 film The Battle of Algiers, I opened the New York Times to find the following description of Iraqi women seeking their sons. "The prison, west of Baghdad, is a nucleus of despair. Every day, crowds of women in black shrouds jam the front gates, squinting up at the guard towers, clutching worn pieces of paper, pleading with guards to see their missing men. 'Move! Move! Move!' an American sergeant shouted at them on a recent day."

A few minutes later I came upon a description--at the delightfully informative, surprisingly upbeat Ariel Sharon's "separation fence" in Qalqilya. Four times as long and twice as high as the Berlin Wall, this "fence"--made of concrete and the odd length of human-proof electrified chain-link--slices through farm field and has a single opening for 100,000 Palestinian citizens.

Then, back to The Battle of Algiers: A Muslim woman in an off-white hijab starts an argument with two checkpoint-patrol clucks, then wends her way across town where she hands a pistol to another "insurgent," who shoots a cop in the back. Two Algerian men are on a shooting spree near the center of town; one of the two grabs the wheel and turns the joyride into a suicide mission. All the while, there are the French paratroopers: patting old people down, smashing shop windows, and destroying the houses of families of suspected terrorists--an old Sharon trick that the aging general has passed onto Paul Bremer and the enforcers of Iraq's "enduring freedom."

The dream (il)logic of the colonial "war on terror"--the insistence on punishment, crackdown, and deterrence when root causes are staring the cops in the face--gives Pontecorvo's masterpiece a peculiar druglike force. Watching Algiers is like waking from a nightmare whose symbols lucidly explain your life. Like America's ongoing war on drugs (or the LAPD's expensive war on gangs), the French characters' war on the Front de Libération Nationale's terror in Pontecorvo's film provides us with the ghoulish slapstick of arrogant, high-paid doctors expertly treating symptoms as the patient expires before their eyes.

If we didn't have our own quagmire to sit in, we might view Algiers as a black-comic take on a particularly French sin: reading too much into a transparent text--in this case, interpreting a straightforward popular desire for self-determination as...something more complexly ideological. But as the proxy Oscar-winner Robert S. McNamara teaches us: We, too, find it impossible to imagine that a distant people might want to take their own chances with fate--unless some agitators, crooks, or errant Baathists are there to hiss Iago-like in their ears.

Surely The Battle of Algiers is the greatest political movie ever made. But what does that mean, exactly? Whose politics are on the screen? Saadi Yacef, who plays the lead role in the picture, was a highly placed FLN figure in the '50s who came to Pontecorvo to tell the story of the revolution. In a recent IndieWIRE interview, Saadi claims that both the narrative and the local texture of the movie are his, all his--but the evidence of Pontecorvo's long-standing collaboration with scenarist Franco Solinas would suggest otherwise.

Is the movie pro-revolution? Every scrap of evidence, from its frequent inclusion in left-wing film journals to the ecstasy of its final, surprising set piece--an outpouring of joy among the newly liberated citizens of Algeria--would seem to say yes. But then what explains Algiers' miraculous re-release? A Pentagon screening to provoke discussion of how to win ground without losing hearts and minds? How could a movie by a man whom Pauline Kael once described as a "dangerous Marxist poet" become Rummy's lunchtime-seminar material?

Pontecorvo conceived of this cradle-to-grave primer on the birth, near-death, and success of a people's revolution as a "choral film"--and, indeed, no contemporary artist except Don DeLillo has such an astounding gift for creating crowd scenes that are as richly characterized as a two-person vignette. Pontecorvo makes a moral point--in addition to delighting us as movie-lovers--when he brings six, seven, eight extras to the foreground of a scene, painting their personalities, involving us in their lives...then dropping them back into the miasma of the People. The point is that individual psychology is not at the forefront of this story, nor is the lust for heroes. The Battle of Algiers recounts the story of innumerable ordinary people who had to "act politically" in a way they hadn't all their lives, then disappear again into everyday life.

Still, there are two poles marking the boundaries in this film: Saadi's Ali, the little man-turned-revolutionary firebrand (and part-time fundamentalist scourge); and Jean Martin's Colonel Mathieu, who becomes the hinge on which the movie's meaning turns. The latter--an impassive, Ray Ban-sporting lieutenant colonel--is given the task of cracking the FLN's terror organization, and represents the most irrefutable aspects of the colonialist worldview. When smugly asked by a liberal journalist to "be frank about a frank word"--torture--Mathieu doesn't break a sweat:

Let's be precise. The word torture doesn't appear in our orders. Questioning would seem to be the only valid method of dealing with a clandestine group. The FLN asks its captured members to remain silent for 24 hours. That way, it has time to render any confessed information useless.... The problem is, the FLN wants to throw us out of Algeria, and we want to stay. Since we're being precise, let me ask a question: Is France to stay in Algeria? If the answer is still yes, you must accept all the necessary consequences.

If only our own bad guys in uniform spoke with such self-knowledge and bitter wisdom!

The Battle of Algiers is not a movie that can be "seen either way." Its sympathies are clear. But, like Brecht insisting that the Catholic torturers be given as strong an argument as Galileo, Pontecorvo makes us look unblinkingly (as several of his terrorist characters do) at the people in a crowded soda shop who are about to be blown up. We acknowledge their closeness to us as living people. They are our family. And for a moment, this breathless and terrifically exciting movie pauses to cry out in helpless grief at the ways in which we are utterly arbitrary prisoners of the history that made us.

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