Which side would I choose in a revolution? Let me finish this bag of chips first.
The Film: Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 documentary-style examination of the French-Algerian conflict
The Potable: One bottle of 2014 Jadot Beaujalais Villages
Any political movie runs the risk of falling victim to its own timeliness. Take up a cause with too straight a face and your film could be irrelevant in 2, 5, or 20 years. Dr. Strangelove, for instance, has outlived similar nuclear protest films of the 1960s by keeping its politics second to its comedy, using a satirical veil that can be reliably repurposed for new audiences. Others aren’t so lucky. As Cate Blanchett’s Bob Dylan says in I’m Not There, “all these songs about, you know, roses growing out of people’s brains…they’re not going to die. They’re not folk music songs. They’re political songs. They’re already dead.”
Which makes it all the more incredible that a movie like The Battle of Algiers, one that so unabashedly wears its politics on its sleeve, remains so relevant. So much so that the Bush administration screened the film at the Pentagon during the invasion of Iraq to study how the French lost. Algeria, Iraq – tomato, tomato, an adage that just doesn’t come across in print.
I watched for a different reason: Could I ever really put down this bag of Frito Lays and join the Revolution?
The first thing I notice is that rebels are more handsome. They have higher cheekbones and more hair. This is certainly a draw, as studies have shown that hanging out with beautiful people makes you more attractive by association. Famous rebels: James Dean, Han Solo, George Washington – all pretty good looking, and the Algerian resistance fighters are no different. I shovel a handful of Fritos into my mouth and nod.
They also get cool machine guns. But then Pontecorvo shows how those guns were used, in unflinching detail. Then homemade bombs enter the equation. Coffee shops are targeted. Police officers, soldiers, dance halls. Revolution, resistance; these may be evocative buzzwords, and I certainly have my share of pet causes – ticketing sidewalk bicyclists, jailing movie theater texters, make food free – but these words also have very drastic ideas behind them with real consequences. Content to be ugly, I decide I cannot stomach the life of a rebel.
Fighting for the Resistance is out, but what about the establishment?
Life on this side doesn’t appear to be all bad. The French commander may not be a looker, but he hides it well beneath a pair of boss sunglasses that I intend to incorporate into my Orson Welles cape and Richard Gere fedora look. The military fatigues are not my style, but they can’t tell me what to wear on the weekends. Fighting for the establishment also means trying to maintain some sense of stability in an insecure world. A noble goal, I suppose, as I often think people underestimate how fragile our social order can be.
But then the military reveals itself to be no better. They use racial slurs, profile innocent people, torture, and open fire on unarmed protesters. They murder a rebel leader in his jail cell. These scenes of state-sanctioned violence are just as disturbing as the bombings, so why the hell did I leave the Rebellion? If this is the status quo, then it’s pretty apparent why there was an uprising, and I frankly want nothing to do with these uggos.
This is what made The Battle of Algiers so refreshing upon its release. Made by an Italian production company, this outsider perspective allows the film to depict this crucial stage of the Algerian War with surprising objectivity. Neither side is particularly valorized, and in lieu of heroes and villains, Pontecorvo acknowledges a more universal truth: conflict is more complicated than either side will readily admit. All of this is done, of course, with innovative techniques. Hand-held cameras, amateur actors, and a rousing score by Ennio Morricone.
The lighting is largely well done, with daytime scenes appropriately bright and nighttime scenes appropriately dark.
Which side to choose? There is a scene near the beginning of the film in which an old wino is swarmed by a gang of nine-year-olds and rolled down a flight of stairs for setting a bad example. It’s going to be difficult, the sharp stone edges of the stairway must be bad on one’s back, but I think it’s fairly clear what my revolutionary role will be.
The Battle of Algiers didn’t leave me completely unmoved. I do, first thing tomorrow, plan to establish a Patreon account to raise money for Algerian independence.
Verdict: give me liberty or give me death, whichever’s easier