WITH Guevara killed by CIA-inspired forces in South America, North Vietnam facing total destruction, and U.S. police forces arming to meet future civil rights riots, revolution doesn't look so rosy these days. So it's nice to have Gillo Pontecorvo's superb first film The Battle of Algiers here to remind us that military suppression doesn't always work.
Algiers treats the rise and fall of the NLF from its genesis to the annihilation of its last leader in 1957. Pontecorvo uses the terrorist uprisings for a massive dramatic narrative centering on several NLF leaders and the French colonel who sets out to destroy them. He splits the film into episodes delineated by newsreel datelines; his camera has a journalist's preoccupation with showing all the action, which takes precedence over clean-cutting or attractive composition. But at no point is Algiers a documentary--even when the high-grain high-contrast film most resembles aged newsreel footage--and ultimately Pontecorvo makes a classic statement that transcends the political issue: an affirmation of the greatness of men who choose to fight great causes, and the inability of force to destroy spirit and deep moral conviction.
Algiers is in the great tradition of the first neo-realist masterpieces, Rosselini's Open City and Visconti's La Terra Trema. But where those two films dealt entirely with killing and oppression of the weak by Fascists and reactionary capitalists, the killing of innocent people in Algiers is committed mostly by the NLF, Pontecorvo's heroes. In accepting the slaughter of hundreds of citizens, guilty only in their complacent acceptance of a derelict social structure, Pontecorvo emphasizes the validity of necessary social upheaval, regardless of its price. Each death becomes not a crime of the NLF but the tragic consequence of years of unjust colonialism and prejudice.
If The Battle of Algiers did nothing else but jolt the audience into realizing that complacency is synonymous with guilt in the minds of an oppressed people, it would be a stunning film on the level of Peter Watkins' The War Game. But acting, awe-inspiring recreation of detail, and stylistic integrity help Algiers rise above even the best propaganda, and leaves us with an overpowering feeling of humanity.