1968 / Best Director

Film #581: The Battle of Algiers (1968)

It’s a great feeling when I go into a film having no prior knowledge of what’s it about as I like to be surprised and it means that I have no prior preconceptions about the quality of the movie. Although I now it’s held in high regard, it has been nominated for at least one Oscar after all, I knew very little else about Gilo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. In fact, judging from the title I felt it might be a World War epic of some kind so imagine my surprise when I discovered the majority of it was set in the mid-1950s as it dealt with the battle for French Algiers between the French authorities who ran the capital and the National Liberation Front, or the LFN for short, who wanted their country back.

What I enjoyed about Pontecorvo’s film was that it didn’t paint either side of the battle as the good guys and instead everyone was drawn in shades of grey. Initially we saw the conflict through the eyes of Ali la Pointe, a young criminal who is drawn into the world of the LFN and quickly rises up amongst their ranks. Additionally we are shown the way in which the LFN operate particularly when planting bombs in public places by having their go-betweens be women who go undetected by the guards. After several attacks the French call in the military who are represented by Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu, a composite character who is portrayed by theatre star Jean Martin; the only professional actor amongst the cast of amateurs. Mathieu’s job is to uncover who the LFN leaders are and attempt to point out to the natives of Algiers that the guerrilla group don’t have their best interests at heart. However it’s arguable that Mathieu’s team of paratroopers resort to the same sort of tactics as the LFN with scenes depicting harrowing interrogation and even murder.  Gradually Mathieu is able to pick off the men at the top of the LFN one by one until Ali is the only one left and their showdown is particularly traumatic. As this is a film primarily based on facts, the ending of the battle of Algiers isn’t the end of the war with the final scenes taking us to 1960 where the Algerians rise up again and finally win independence from France in 1962.

After witnessing the artistic cinema of such directors as Fellini and Bertolucci it’s an odd change of pace to see another Italian director do something completely different but that is just what Pontecorvo did with The Battle of Algiers. Instead of indulging in fantasies, Pontecorvo called for realism with The Battle of Algiers and that’s exactly what he achieved thanks to a number of different elements. Top of that list was the cinematography with Pontecorvo and cinematographer Marcello Gatti utilising telephoto lenses and handheld cameras to give the film the look of a televised news report. This definitely worked as The Battle of Algiers looked more like a documentary or a TV feature to the extent that the US release of the film came with an opening disclaimer informing audiences that no newsreel footage was used in the movie. Another element of the movie that worked for me was the use of sound, music and again the utilisation of silence usually before another tragedy was about to occur. Whilst the score that Pontecorvo worked on with his long time friend Ennio Morricone was enthralling it was the use of traditional Algerian drumming which will stick with me as they provided an eerie soundtrack to the aforementioned bombing of public places. The use of non-professional actors also enhanced the realistic aspects, especially in the crowd scenes where once again I got the impression that I was watching a documentary of some kind. I honestly didn’t think that professional actor Jean Martin looked out of place but instead that his character of Mathieu had the sort of intelligence that a lot of the more impulsive LFN members lacked. However, I did feel that Martin had arguably the biggest screen presence possibly due to his prior acting experience or perhaps because the character is definitely the film’s most memorable.

The Battle of Algiers was a fantastic watch and a film that I’m sure will stick with me a lot more than some of the films that have occupied the most recent posts. The filming style, music, performances form the amateur cast and Pontecorvo’s fantastic direction all went in to making a realistic portrait of a conflict that I had no prior knowledge of. I liked the way in which the story was balanced so it didn’t favour either side of the conflict and instead promoted what felt like the facts in a clear and concise manner. What wasn’t clear and concise was the way that Oscar handled the film which was again nominated for the Foreign Feature award before appearing two years later in some of the other categories. In fact The Battle of Algiers had to wait two years between its first nomination and its subsequent nods in the director and screenplay categories. If it were up to me I would’ve also nominated the score, sound mixing and cinematography because in my opinion they all helped create the unique style of the film. Ultimately though I feel The Battle of Algiers did deserve a place in the 1968 Best Picture field although I feel it was a little too controversial to sit alongside safer titles such as The Lion in Winter and Funny Girl. But overall I’m incredibly glad that I got the chance to watch The Battle of Algiers as it was a film that I was enthralled by from beginning to end.

Next up in our whirlwind tour through these foreign language best director nominated films we come upon the movie that beat The Battle of Algiers to the Best Foreign Language Feature award in 1966.

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