Thursday, May 7, 2009

Movie Review: The Battle of Algiers (La Battaglia Di Algeri)

I had been hearing about The Battle of Algiers since I was in university. The 1966, Italian film is considered the great Marxist, anti-colonialist film. A must see for radicals. For this reason, I had avoided it all these years. Often cited as a rally cry and blueprint for Islamic, or anti-western uprisings, I thought it was a fitting time to watch it. Besides, it is considered a masterpiece of cinema.

I was blown away.

It’s a gripping docu-drama based on the real events, and people of the Algerian War of Independence, between 1954-1962, when the Muslim-Arabs struggled for independence from France. The film is based entirely in Algiers the capital. There is a divide between the European Quarter where the French live and the famous Casbah, the section around the old citadel in the hills where the Arabs live.

To begin with, the film focuses in on the Arab FLN (Front de LibĂ©ration Nationale). Main character, Ali Lapoint, from his prison window witnesses an Arab scream “Allah Akbar!” before getting the guillotine from the French. Afterwards, free and listless, Ali is recruited by the FLN, and they test his loyalty. Ultimately he becomes a fighter and killer for the cause.

The FLN is not just a guerrilla organization but intends to be the governing and moral authority of the Arab population. The French educated, intellectual leaders wage a propaganda war. With a brilliant use of voice over, the film depicts the FLN announcing several decrees to the population to resist French rule. For example, wanting to rid themselves of French/infidel vice they decree the ban of alcohol, drugs and prostitution. They want to create an Islamic rallying point, in areas they control. We see the results of this plan, as a pimp is shot and then a group of children are urged to beat and harass a drunk, yelling: “Wino! Wino!” It’s a masterful cinematic segue from idea to result.

Ramping up, the FLN launch a campaign of assassinating French police officers, and the viewer witnesses the action. Reeling from that sequence, the film uses voice over again, this time decrees from the French police, about the consequences of harbouring Muslim radicals. As a solution, the French army cordons off the Casbah with barbed wire, and Arabs have to cross a checkpoint to get out. The assassinations continue, through organized, covert activity.

Frustrated, the police unofficially plant a nighttime bomb in a crowded civilian area, known for radical activity in the Casbah. The blast kills a dozen men, women and children, (that we can see), perhaps there are more under the rubble. Incensed, the FLN plan a bombing campaign of their own, for the European Quarter. What follows is one of the most intense scenes I have ever experienced, as we follow the Muslim bombers on their grizzly task. I won’t cheapen it by trying to sum it up. The suspense is nearly unbearable.

Algiers is an exotic and compelling setting. The Casbah is an ancient fortress of walls, stairs, a maze of alleys, and doors that lead to courtyards or different building complexes or dead ends. (Metaphorical of the French understanding of the Arabs.) What came to mind were descriptions of Prague from friends, except with white box-like Arab-style architecture. In contrast, the coastal European Quarter has wide open boulevards, populated with cars, shops, cafes and fashionably dressed whites. It looked like it could have been the Montreal of the 50’s that my parents grew up in.

The bombing campaign angers the French who summon the Foreign Legion Paratroopers, headed by Colonel Mathieu, an outstanding character, played by actor Jean Martin. He states clearly that this is a war and as a soldier, his only goal is to win. He is no caricature, but thoughtful and intelligent. In briefing his troops, he explains how the FLN operate in self-contained cells, very much what he have heard on the news for the last decade in our own time.

Faced with the new force, the Arabs change tack and wage a one week general strike in support of the FLN. World observers were starting to weigh in on the conflict, and the FLN ordered non- violence and used the strike to impress the UN and world opinion. (They were not stupid.) However, Col. Mathieu uses this as leverage to break the strike and round up any Arab suspects to interrogate and if necessary, torture for information leading to cell members. (Included are rough torture scenes. Blow torch, jumper cables and car battery. And water torture.) Ultimately his counter-insurgency breaks the top cells. The negative result is that it has inflamed Arab opposition even more.

Mathieu understands that the most important player for the French cause is not the army but the free press. They question him on torture and he says to them at a press conference: "Do you think the French should stay in Algeria? If yes... then you must accept the consequences.” At the beginning of the conflict, even the communist papers were supporting the war effort, but now everybody was turning to accept the Algerian cause. Sound familiar? My head was spinning watching this.

I have to mention the film score by Ennio Morricone and Gillo Pontecorvo was phenomenal as well. I don’t have the best music vocabulary, but during tense scenes there was pulsating, hypnotic music that obviously adds to the film’s critical acclaim.

This film inspired many western Marxists, but to me, it does not do their cause any good. These days we tend to think of a Marxist as a pot smoking, professional student, wearing a Che Gueverra t-shirt. But serious Marxism and Communism believes in violent means to achieve an end. Ideas are more important than human rights. The film depicts merciless, unflinching assassinations and bombings. When it goes from cop killing to civilian killing, it’s appalling to watch. I don’t know how a person brought up in western society would approve. Just like, on the other hand, it’s impossible to support the French for torturing people.

Growing up in my generation, it’s obvious that colonialism is bad. The Algerians beat it. Tragically, we look ironically at the modern Algiers which is a destroyed and forgotten city. The natives threw off the colonial yoke, but ended up their own worse enemies.

Most importantly though, the Algerians won their independence. This film is a “how-to” for running an insurgency. The western powers still do not have a strategy to defeat a guerrilla war.

This movie is relevant to today’s situation. I bet Obama saw it in his student days. Does he remember the lessons, as he sends an American Col. Mathieu to clean up the Afghan insurgency?


  1. Very cool! Good review. I can't wait to watch this flick. Thanks.

    Maybe i'll take off my pants, put on my Che Gueverra t-shirt and smoke a spliff to get me in the mood.

  2. Where did you find this movie? I have never seen or heard of it?

  3. Well, it's considered a classic and many academics have studied it. I remember hearing Christopher Hitchens saying how much it influenced him in the 60's. I have provided an Amazon link. I'm sure that a good video/dvd shop would stock it. If you know anything about Bit Torrent, you can definitely find it there.

  4. You can find it on youtube!