THE BATTLE FOR ALGIERS: The true inglorious bastards

Not many people know about this particular film, probably because not many people were exposed to this genuine prophetic piece of cinema — ‘The Battle for Algiers’ could easily termed as a film that could act as a manual for guerrilla terrorism and a cautionary tale about how to fight it. Jokes apart, this is one film that I could easily call as the finest war film ever made.


Recently, I came across this wonderful piece of cinema…a film that shook me from within…not only because of its powerful acting and storyline but also because of its treatment, its cinematic techniques. Before revolutions were televised, political cinema enabled large populations to contemplate the machinations and consequences of violent unrest from a distance. Technical advancements helped the cause, allowing narrative storytelling to merge with documentary aesthetics and formulate a new kind of hybrid realism. Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers immersed itself in this aesthetic, and might be the greatest film on the subject of insurrection, profiling the Algerian fight for independence against the French colonial forces in such stirring detail that many intense fictional sequences feel as if they are ripped directly from actual newsreel footage.

Filmed in 1965, released in late 1967, The Battle of Algiers is a crucial film about a new kind of warfare. The film is about the insurrection for independence from France, and it’s as fresh and suspenseful as anything before or since. It’s 1957, and the anti-colonialist independence movement is stirring. An uneducated petty street thief comes under the wing of a small, dedicated cell of revolutionaries. The film tracks his awakening to the injustices suffered by Algerians under French rule and his growing into a leader of the movement. It details the tactics of the revolutionaries: small cells, secrecy and the evolution of resistance into terrorism. A charismatic former Resistance fighter is sent from France to lead a force to crush the resistance, and the battle begins.

gillo-pontecorvoIt’s an anatomy of an urban uprising – the violent nationalist revolt (it reminds me of the Egyptian revolution). At times, there are movies that intrigues you so much that it pushes you to read more about the subject and also about the film. And this is exactly what happened with me. After watching this gem, I decided to read a bit about the revolution and also about the cinema. While doing that, I learned that the film arose directly out of the liberation movement that the film talks about. In 1962, former rebel Saadi Yacef was released from jail and, with the support of the new government, he invited the Italian filmmaker to dramatize his memoirs. The results are so fine – so modern – that I can’t think of a better film born of a political struggle, or at least one that moulds political commentary with drama so effectively.

The Battle of Algiers isn’t just a political beast, but a cinematic one as well. A fitting complement to Pontecorvo’s penetrating compositions and DP Marcello Gatti’s nimble camera work, Ennio Morricone’s score echoes through the cramped Casbah avenues like a call to arms. The pouncing musical notes crescendo during moments of mass tumult, and together all three artists perform a balancing act of epic proportions; a complex historical moment is recreated from the gritty ground up. Politicians are expectedly non-existent in the constantly evolving social world of The Battle of Algiers, their voices only heard via radio or transmitter dictating orders that are as ignorant as they are abrasive. They are the true inglorious bastards.Battle_Algiers_Featurea_video_still

In the microcosm of Algiers, convulsing in its first throes to throw off French rule, you’ll learn history lessons about guerrilla war, state-sponsored war and what a people will do and risk for independence. But most of all, you’ll experience a powerful and enduring work of art.

Till you find the DVD of this rare gem…watch the trailer here:

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