Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Reeling Backward: "The Battle of Algiers"

One of the more wonderful things about film is that it never dies.

Old celluloid can shrivel up and wither away, but a much greater effort has been placed on preservation. And now with digital formats, we can keep perfect copies of movies forever.

As a result, it's not unusual for an old film to be rediscovered many years later and find a new audience to appreciate it. One of those is "The Battle of Algiers," the great 1966 war film about a Muslim uprising in French-controlled Algeria between 1954 and 1962. The nationalities are like this: It's a story told mostly in French, about largely Arabic characters, made by Italians based on the account of one of the Muslim revolutionaries.

Given this pedigree, one would think the film would be overtly biased in favor of the Muslims, but director Gillo Pontecorvo and his co-screenwriter Franco Solinas persevere to prevent an unflinching look at the travesties committed by both sides.

It's a simply startling chronicle, so life-like and documentary in its feel that one would swear the filmmakers had actually witnessed the real events with their cameras.

The film was re-released during the early days of the Iraq War, and the parallels between the French and American positions nearly a half-century apart were startling. They faced a small but committed group of Muslim insurgents who captured the hearts and minds of the populace, even as they used outright terrorism and intimidation as tactics. The French tended to treat the populace with high-handed disdain, subjecting them to searches and capricious imprisonment that inflamed their passions. The French also resorted to torture to gain intelligence from captured insurgents.

A word on torture. There has been much talk about how the U.S. engaged in torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo -- pointing to waterboarding (which the government has acknowledged using on three detainees, including the 9/11 mastermind), sleep deprivation, isolation and forced kneeling position. I won't use this forum to offer my opinion on whether these methods should be used or not. But "The Battle of Algiers" starkly shows what real torture is. Muslim rebels are beaten to a bloody pulp, electrocuted and blowtorches taken to their bodies.

If you think the insurgents are angels in comparison, you're wrong. They stalk policemen and shoot them in the back. When the campaign ratchets up, they take to bombing public places like discos and other spots where wholly innocent people gather. Children are killed and maimed by both sides. It's an ugly cycle.

The film uses no main characters, rather showing the tale through the eyes of various members of an ensemble cast, representing actual historical figures. Two do stand out, however. Ali La Pointe (Brahim Hadjadj) is a young, fiery leader of the insurgents, who wants to take an eye for an eye at every turn. Jean Martin gives a positively chilling performance as Col. Mathieu, the French paratroop commander who'd given a free hand to quell the uprising, and uses it unsparingly.

More than 40 years old, "The Battle of Algiers" retains a fierce urgency, showing the infancy of the rise of Muslim extremists. Many of the same rhetoric and tactics shown in the movie are at play in the fields of Iraq and Afghanistan today. This film breathes, now more than ever.

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