'The Battle of Algiers' is more relevant than ever (unrated)

For those who have seen “The Battle of Algiers,” Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterful 1966 panorama of political insurrection and urban anxiety, the title alone can summon forth indelible images of Algerian resistance. Three women sneak through the crowded casbah to plant bombs in public places. A revolutionary leader named Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) waits quietly in the darkness as he’s surrounded by police. A triumphant throng of men and women shout and cheer amid a rising cloud of smoke as their hard-fought dream of independence has finally come to pass.

Buried amid all these defining moments is a calm, pivotal scene in which a French military chief named Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin) trains his soldiers to root out members of Algeria’s National Liberation Front, cautioning them to be discriminating in their search. “Are they all our enemies? We know they’re not,” he says of the Algerian locals. “But a small minority holds sway by means of terror and violence. We must deal with this minority in order to isolate and destroy it.”

It is difficult to read those words in isolation, divorced from their political and cinematic context, and not hear a shivery echo of recent headlines. You may have heard someone express a similar sentiment when parsing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or differentiating between Muslims and Islamists. However chilling Mathieu’s sentiments may be, they may strike you as a model of sensitivity compared with Donald Trump’s infamous remarks about the Muslim world — or, for that matter, his son Donald Jr.’s recent comparison of the Syrian refugee population to a bowl of selectively tainted Skittles.

Closer to home, the notion of a dangerous sub-minority feels painfully relevant to the ongoing clashes between police officers and unarmed black men in America. The latest fatalities in El Cajon, Calif.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Charlotte, N.C., suggest that when it comes to this cycle of senseless violence, too many cops – however vehemently they might deny it — still view great swaths of the African American population as a criminal menace by default. 

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that there has perhaps never been a better time to experience or re-experience “The Battle of Algiers,” which is commemorating its 50th anniversary with a digital 4K restoration. Then again, as history is always at pains to remind us, there has never been an inappropriate moment for a picture that so completely collapses the distance between now and then.

The movie’s tremendous dramatic urgency and sociopolitical currency can be attributed in no small part to its still-electrifying alchemy of form and content. Mimicking the jagged, caught-on-the-fly syntax of a ’50s black-and-white newsreel even as it moves with the propulsive sweep of a thriller, the movie seems to be everywhere at once, the camera capturing pockets of anxiety and unease even in broad daylight.

Feared, loathed and loved over the last half-century, “The Battle of Algiers” won the Golden Lion at the 1966 Venice Film Festival and was later nominated for three Academy Awards (director, original screenplay and foreign-language film). It was deemed so incendiary in France that it was banned there for five years; even afterward, it has remained a magnet for controversy, often derided as an apologia or a blueprint for terrorism rather than a call for common understanding.

Whatever viewers at the time might have learned about how a Western imperialist power should or should not deal with a rapidly mounting, many-sided insurgency, those lessons seem positively quaint in light of the geopolitical crisis that looms before us at present, after the rise of Islamic State and the subsequent deadly attacks in Europe and the U.S. What might have once seemed a far-flung, local concern has spread far beyond Iraq to consume what feels like the world entire.

Meanwhile, on a very different yet simultaneous front, the struggle for black justice at home continues, and for some Americans, its roots and motivations — and the cycles of brutality and unrest that emerge in its wake —are no less difficult to grasp.

Who is safe? Who is innocent? Why must they riot? Where will the next attack occur? Was that shooting or bombing the work of a terrorist, or just an unhinged mind? “The Battle of Algiers” offers no reassuring answers to these questions, but to watch the film, with its startlingly evenhanded treatment of both sides, is to experience the sort of mature intelligence and tough-minded compassion that makes you long to believe hope is still possible.

If the perspective of “The Battle of Algiers” still feels radically diffuse, its aesthetic choices have been more readily absorbed into the mainstream. A war film shot with bristling handheld urgency — like, say, Paul Greengrass’ “Bloody Sunday” and “Green Zone,” or Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” — is no longer compared to documentaries or newsreels; hyperkinetic Steadicam is simply par for the course. The use of untrained performers (Martin was the sole professional actor in Pontecorvo’s film) is no longer a novelty.

The spirit of Pontecorvo’s filmmaking can be felt even in pictures with markedly different stylistic DNA. Ken Loach, who has long cited Pontecorvo’s influence, made perhaps his most “Algiers”-like effort with 2006’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” which also chronicles the tensions that flare between the occupiers (the British) and the occupied (the Irish). When Loach received the Palme d’Or at Cannes for the film, the words he spoke might as well have been a permanent epitaph for “The Battle of Algiers,” if “epitaph” is the right word for a film that refuses to die: “Maybe if we tell the truth about the past, we tell the truth about the present.”

Director: Gillo Pontecorvo.
Screenwriter: Franco Solinas.
A Rialto Pictures release. Running time: 121 minutes. In French, English and Arabic with English subtitles. Violence. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Miami Beach. 

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