The total magnitude of war is beyond the comprehension of language. Though audiences can never fully grasp the pain, politics and emotions of the French-Algerian war, the Criterion edition of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece is nonetheless a staggering achievement. Such is its timeless impact, …Algiers was screened at the Pentagon in 2003 as an illustration of burning issues faced in Iraq. It is easy to see why.
Pontecorvo masterfully shoots on location in a grainy, documentary style, with untrained actors convincingly illustrating the rise of the Algerian guerrilla National Liberation Front and the colonial powers ruthless attempts to crush them. With harrowing scenes of frighteningly realistic violence, the film succinctly documents the period from 1954 to 1957 when the Casbah of Algiers became a bloody theatre of war. Expertly filmed bombings and shootings seem almost too real, with one explosion in a teenager-packed café proving particularly overwhelming.
Brahim Hagiag exudes moody, urgent intensity as Ali La Pointe, a crook who scales the ranks of the FLN and who serves as the film’s emotional core. If the face is a map of a life, the steely resolve evident in the actor’s eyes, unflinchingly gunning down opponents, convinces us that the freedom fighter will die for freedom. The excellent Saadi Yasef, a real-life FLN military chief loads further ammunition to the authentic feel, bringing gravitas to a character moulded on his own experiences.
Pontecorvo’s flair for orchestrating massive crowd scenes, bestows …Algiers with a proper sense of grand scale and significance, a towering example of cinematic realism. The only elements that break the spell are some ropey performances from untrained supporting actors, such as a rebel forced to betray La Pointe, whose glassy stare and uncertain mannerisms prove regrettably distracting.
It is a minor grumble with a picture, energised by an insistent Ennio Morricone military score, that consistently absorbs and thrills. When the bombs go off it is hard to deny the feeling of history being forged in blood and thunder.
A barrage of meticulously assembled documentary extras impress, with 1992’s The Dictatorship of Truth and Gillo Pontecorvo’s Return to Algiers offering fascinating insight on the director’s past, politics and views on the conflict’s enduring legacy. Cast and crew reminisce in Marxist Poetry, while Remembering History explores the Algerian experience, through candid, fascinating interviews with surviving FLN members. Etats d’Armes, an excerpt from a 2002 feature on the conflict, offers the French military viewpoint, while Pontecorvo’s fearless methods and his impact on contemporaries like Spike Lee and Oliver Stone is explored in interview featurette Five Directors. Perhaps most fascinating is The Battle of Algiers: A Case Study, a short discussion from 2004 between White House counter-terrorism experts, examing the film’s relevance to contemporary terrorism concerns.
Theatrical trailers, in-depth production gallery and an educational booklet, featuring historical essays and interviews with key players rounds off a superbly comprehensive package. The beauty of Pontecorvo’s accomplishment, reflected in these extensive supplements, is that he gets inside the minds of both sides, presenting an admirably balanced account of war. Never passing judgement, he poses alarming questions, the answers to which continue to elude us.