Among all war films, the 1966 Italian-Algerian production called “The Battle of Algiers” seems to invoke the tensest evocation of the current state of warfare in the world. It’s war taken to a divided city where cultures compete and freedoms seem sapped as a result of over a century and a half of occupation. It tells the story of the Algerian revolution from both sides, with much bloodshed and explosions. In addition, we hear how tiresome the philosophy of the oppressors and revolutionaries become when confrontation happens at every turn, murder becomes the norm, and momentum builds towards the inevitable revolution.
The film, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, stars Yacef Saadi as Djafar, a man so driven by both bitterness and a sense of determination to take on a colonial power as great as France. After Djafar and his associates, including several women, orchestrate the murders of several policemen and a series of bombings in Algiers, France sends the decorated and very experienced Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin) to deal with the situation. He compares the revolutionaries to a tapeworm with many parts and encourages his army men to destroy the head. In the first scene of the film, Colonel Mathieu’s plan seems close to becoming successful. But we know how Algeria’s history played out: it gained independence from France in 1962.
Playing like a docudrama, The Battle of Algiers begins in 1954 and ends in 1962. The gripping action, full of violent confrontations, never subsides, and there is no happy ending other than the showing of the prideful struggle of a people desperate for self-determination. The film doesn’t attempt to explain how the efforts of a failed group of revolutionaries led to an uprising that happens several years later.
The film seems so realistic that people in the film really look like they received serious injuries. Director Pontecorvo carefully staged things to look real, and the tension never lets up. Except for a few dry quips from Colonel Mathieu about the French press, Pontecorvo makes no attempt to add any comic relief to the story. So, it’s surprising that the unrelenting tension doesn’t break in the wrong direction at any point in the film.
Music plays a big part in film, guiding the atmosphere as the film switches between episodes of terror and images of the powerful French army in their battle fatigues. The music in the opening scenes of a French battalion bounding through the narrow streets of Algiers to fight an enemy we haven’t seen yet sets up a powerful, but episodic, narrative that never lets up.