Gillo Pontevorvo: La Battaglia di Algeri
Updated on March 2, 2009, 10:24 PM - Written by Tim Buttner
The grainy black and white images contained in The Battle of Algiers, released in Italy September 8, 1966, are frighteningly realistic and extremely documentary-like. For many viewers it seems like the narrative of the movie was edited into actual footage of the 1954 fight between the FLN (National Liberation Front) and French government. This is not the case, because the brilliant director was the first of his kind to film the movie in that documentary style in order to create an atmosphere that fit into his message-filled film. Not all modern directors who try to replicate his technique succeed. While many lack the innovation and craft that Pontecorvo possessed, others pay homage to his style while connecting to a larger theme just as Algiers did.
The film was so realistic and graphically displayed violent scenes of torture that it was banned in France for several years, and the torture scenes were omitted from US and UK releases (imdb.com). Pontecorvo dares to display these scenes, as well as the aftermath of the bombs that both the terrorists and French military plant, which proves his understanding that these images will evoke a visceral response from his audience that is very appropriate. We're not supposed to like the images, but they are important because they make us question the tactics of the fighters. This form of political filmmaking means that the audience appeal is narrowed, because not everyone is ready to view the film. In the late 1960's this was daring, but Pontecorvo understood that the picture he was making had lasting capabilities and chose to allow his audience to catch up.
Pontecorvo and his cinematographer, Marcello Gatti, studied newsreels of the events so as to give the film the look of those newsreels. He went to Algiers and Paris with his co-writer, Franco Solinas, to conduct interviews and dossiers to plan his film as if he were planning his own revolution. He got real-life ex-FLN military chief, Yacef Saadi, to act in the film, and as well produce, to keep the veristic atmosphere. Yacef, he was the turning point in the film's development.
It's hard to imagine that at one point Paul Newman was considered to portray a paratrooper, but it's true. According to Peter Matthews, whose essay "The Battle of Algiers: Bombs and Boomerangs" explains that if it wasn't for Yacef shopping around for a director for his own revolutionary epic, the film would have been a very different picture. Imagine a 2.35 aspect ratio film in color where Newman's blue eyes glisten from beneath his helmet as he examines Arab men and women for weapons. That's not the same picture, nor does it carry the same message. Once Yacef got involved Pontecorvo was able to take his film in the Italian Neo-realism direction.
Over one hundred and fifty non-professional actors were cast, and one professional French actor. Yacef was placed in the role of El-hadi Jaffar, mirroring his own involvement in the real struggle, and opposite him was Jean Martin as the French military chief Colonel Matheiu, who mirrors French General Jacques Massu. Each scene may have been scripted and planned, but the authenticity of the players and the guerrilla style of filmmaking made the action feel like it was happening in that moment in time. The camera wobbled from the handheld cinematography, and the audience is convinced that the film contains authentic newsreel footage.
Not only was it shot like a documentary, but also it was edited like a documentary. Ennio Morricone's percussion based score, with the assistance of brass instruments, accentuates its pacing, which jolts us into the uneasy feeling that at any moment chaos will erupt. And then, when the terrors have been committed, the score takes up a leitmotif of mourning with woodwind and strings resulting in a swelling of tears. Perhaps Pontecorvo's most intelligent choice was have film's greatest composer create the music and only use it sparingly. What this does is intensify the feeling of reality, and punctuates the well-edited movie because smart editing lends to the ease of the composer, just as a great composer can lend to cleaner editing.
Flash-forward to 2003, when the Pentagon screened the film for "about 40 officers and civilian experts who were urged to consider and discuss the implicit issues at the core of the film " (Kaufman, "What Does the Pentagon See in 'Battle of Algiers'") during which time a war in Iraq with extremely similar in circumstances was taking place. The year before The Bourne Identity was released, and the year after The Bourne Supremacy, followed by The Bourne Ultimatum in 2007. The United States stakes in other countries is reflected in a style similar to Algiers through the Bourne movies. The Bourne movies use shaky camera work, kinetic fast-paced editing, and electronic percussion based music all while dealing with an ex-CIA assassin who decides he doesn't want to kill anymore and is hunted by his government in order to hide their dark little secrets. Bourne shares similar themes to Algiers, and is right for the political climate of a country that has its hands in a war similar to the one fought by the French in the 1950's. Although Paul Greengrass, the director of the second and third Bourne movies, uses the shaky camerawork decadently enough to be overbearing and pointless, especially in quiet scenes of conversation between two characters, it pays a nice homage to Pontecorvo's ingenious.
War has become a messy business where neither side makes righteous or moral decisions in order to win the fight for their side. Filmmakers continue to portray this ambiguity with veristic images, and it's in large part because Gillo Pontecorvo paved the way with the winner of the Venice Film Festival in 1966, La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers).
La Battaglia di Algeri. Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo. Perf. Brahim Hadjadi, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi, and Samia Kerbash. Igor Film. 1966.
"La Battaglia di Algeri." The Internet Movie Database. Imdb.com, Inc. Copyright © 1990-2009. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058946/>.
Matthews, Peter. "The Battle of Algiers: Bombs and Boomerangs." The Criterion Collection Online Cinematheque 12 October 2004. <http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/342>.
Kaufman, Michael T. "What Does the Pentagon See in 'Battle of Algiers'?" New York Times on the Web 7 September 2003. <http://www.rialtopictures.com/eyes_xtras/battle_times.html>.
The Bourne Identity. Dir. Doug Limon. Perf. Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, and Julia Stiles. Universal Pictures. 2002.
The Bourne Supremacy. Dir. Paul Greengrass. Perf. Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Brian Cox, Joan Allen, and Julia Stiles. Universal Pictures. 2004.
The Bourne Ultimatum. Dir. Paul Greengrass. Perf. Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, Joan Allen, and David Strathairn. Universal Pictures. 2007.
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