Tuesday, February 20, 2007

WHEN BOMBS ROCKED THE CASBAH

I saw a pretty incredible film this weekend: Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle Of Algiers, from 1966. I'd heard a bit about it since it was "re-released" in 2004, hearing mostly how it was relevant to the current situation in Iraq. The Pentagon actually screened it in 2003. That's right, The Pentagon. In addition to its other strengths, the film seems to be a very accurate portrayal of modern, middle-eastern, urban guerrilla warfare.

The film works effectively on the political level, as an intelligent, carefully constructed piece of pro-Algerian propaganda. It's also a measured look at the tolls and trials of guerrilla warfare, from both sides. Issues of colonialism, terror and insurgency, torture, anti-terrorism tactics, the role of the innocent on both sides, all of these are topical & relevant today. The movie speaks to the viewer eloquently on those topics. Neither the characters on screen, nor we who watch them, have their intelligence insulted at any point. I can't think of another work of art that explores urban insurgency as well as Battle Of Algiers. And that's the real reason I'm writing about it.

Because the film is a Masterpiece. It's that good.

On one hand, the film captures everything through a near-documentary lens. When the film was released, Pontecorvo made sure to inform viewers that all action was staged, created, produced, acted-out. No newsreel footage. This message is needed. It looks like newsreel. The action seems real. The scenes of Algiers and its exotic Muslim quarter, the Casbah, are obviously authentic. You, the viewer, are there, you're in Algiers. It's an invigorating film experience. Hand-held cameras, in-your-face realism, almost all non-professional actors. It moves, it shakes, it breathes. It's a living film.

I'm not sure if anyone else has commented on this, but to my eyes, Fernando Meirelles seems to have studied Battle Of Algiers before making his amazing City Of God, one of my favorite films of this decade. The combo of camera-in-the-action photography, plus an almost cartoonish concentration on the action (as opposed to day-to-day banalities) reminds me of City Of God. And with its subtitles to introduce dates, locations, and other key facts, it even reminds me of Goodfellas, or the slew of 90's films that borrowed from Scorsese's filmic bible to move the action. Like Meirelles in City Of God, Pontecorvo takes a violent, ugly story and refuses to let you forget that bad things happen . . . to some very innocent people: women & children die, commit crimes, suffer.

But -- and this is one of the two or three keys to the movie's greatness -- like Meirelles' movie, Battle Of Algiers is exciting. It's fast-paced, stirring cinema. Hell, I'll say it: it's fun to watch, even as human tragedy plays itself out. The consequences aren't fun, but the film is. And even the realism of war is portrayed with a keen eye for the intrigue, the suspense, the literally explosive action. That paradox helps to drive the film onward. It's a thrilling ride through a tragic story.

And it is tragic. The violence is "cartoonish" only in that it's relentless, constant, ever-present. But unlike any cartoon, the suffering is real. Pontecorvo's camera captures torture, bombs exploding in civilian centers, homes destroyed, innocent civilians gunned down on the street in cold blood. But the camera is ever in motion, the eye into the characters' motivations is voyeuristic, the narrative doesn't slow. It's not a documentary or a news piece. It's a film, and a beautifully-made one at that. Which is why it's both ugly and stirring, fascinating & repulsive, romantic & cynical all at once. I don't really understand how Pontecorvo was able to pull it off. But he did.

One reason it works is the unabashed use of emotion. Some of the images, scenes, and set-pieces (think of the final scene if you've seen it) are aimed straight at the heart. Crowds, torture, children, the film makes use of the devices at its disposal. The music was composed by Ennio Morricone. Coming out the same year as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, this score evokes less pathos, and Pontecorvo utilizes it more sparingly than Leone (obviously!), but its aim at the viewer's heart is clear.

And beneath the gritty realism, the film has an epic quality. Much of this flows from that same unabashed emotionalism. Battle Of Algiers is a deeply romantic story, as all tales of Revolution need be. Regardless of your opinions about the politics of this chapter in history, you can't help but be shaken as a captured women yells, her voice quivering, "But in the Casbah, Ali LePoint lives!" The characters commit gruesome acts, embrace the horrible truths of war, but do them for emotional reasons. As the French Colonel observes, "The FLN [Algeria's Nationalist Movement] wants to throw us out of Algeria. We want to stay."

Coldly rational . . . in support of an emotional view of what belongs to whom.

Which leads finally to the very best quality in Battle Of Algiers: the unjaundiced, objective eye it turns on the two sides. Both the French paratroopers and the Algerian insurgents engage in almost cynical acts that result in the deaths of innocents. Yet the film insists on showing us that both sides are composed of heroic soldiers, committed to their duty in defending their cause and fighting "the enemy" with bravery and decisiveness. Colonel Mathieu, the French officer in charge of the anti-insurgency, sees the Algerians as a military enemy. In fact, one of the finest scenes occurs as he answers the French media's aggressive questions. While Pontecorvo clearly agrees with much of the anti-torture sentiment of the press, he is careful to "give the Colonel" a chance to explain himself:
"We aren't madmen or sadists, gentlemen. Those who call us Fascists today, forget the contribution that many of us made to the Resistance. Those who call us Nazis, don't know that among us there are survivors of Dachau and Buchenwald. We are soldiers and our only duty is to win."
He then asks the reporters the resounding question which leaves them scrambling for an answer: "Should we remain in Algeria? If you answer 'yes,' then you must accept all the necessary consequences."

This exchange follows Colonel Mathieu's expression of admiration & respect for the FLN leader, a man he captured, and has likely ordered to be executed. But this paradox is meant to shock you. Mathieu does respect him & he knows that the perfect counterpoint to his own view is found in the words of the captured rebel leader, as he responds to reporters' questions regarding the FLN's use of women's bags to hide bombs:
"And doesn't it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets."
Right? No. Wrong? What does that mean in war? Realpolitik rules the day, defeating morality & humanism in a rout. That's the concept that Battle Of Algiers understands better than any war movie I've ever seen. It's all "wrong." But so is the enemy. And give him the advantage in wrongness, and you'll lose.

In an astonishing sequence in the middle of the film, the camera follows three young Algerian women as they trim their hair, don Western garb, and stealthily enter the European quarter to plant high-powered bombs. At one especially wrenching moment, the audience -- knowing what's coming -- watches one of the girls calmly look into the faces of the doomed dancing teenagers, highball-sipping businessmen, and even a toddler with an ice cream cone. It's harrowing, but it feels real, in no way manipulated.

An amazing feat for a propaganda film. And of course the next scenes show the French paratroopers responding to the bombings with equally indiscriminate barbarity. Sympathy for the Algerians or not, Pontecorvo does not let us forget the astonishing toll of this kind of warfare. As should be clear, I strongly advise you to see this movie if you haven't yet. No matter what your feelings about the Algerian War, the current war, or war in general, you'll be moved. By the story, by the beautifully-filmed scenes, by the characters, and most of all by the film itself. This is a great one.

10 Comments:

Anonymous Applesaucer said...

Well done on a very fine review, Mike. So fine, in fact, that it makes me want to rent the movie right now.

But wait -- if I follow your recommendation, that'll make at least a handful of movies I've seen because you've recommended them to me (including Swingers, Goodwill Hunting, Picnic at Hanging Rock, City of God -- just to name a few) to the ZERO you've seen on my recommendation.

Ah well, can't let pride get in the way of seeing an all-time-great flick, can I?

As soon as I return "V for Vendetta" -- which has been sitting around for at least a week -- I'll put "Algiers" in my queue.

Applesaucer

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Mike said...

including Swingers, Goodwill Hunting, Picnic at Hanging Rock, City of God

I'd say my record is 2-1-1 on those four.

Knowing you, particularly, I'd say see Battle Of Algiers but don't let your expectations get the better of you. Like any film, it has flaws. So if you're looking for a perfect, 4-start film, you'll inevitably be disappointed.

And I'm listening to you: I'm gonna go put Witness on the Netflix queue.

11:46 AM  
Anonymous Applesaucer said...

Swingers - Big winner.

Picnic at Hanging Rock -- Big winner (but in a different way).

Goodwill Hunting - a loser IMHO. But the rest of the world disagrees with me.

City of God - A winner. I enjoyed it a lot. But it dragged for me towards the end and at the end of the day, when I judged the movie as I would any other movie, I, personally, did not feel that I'd just had a transcendent experience.

How much better is it than movies like Go or Snatch? Better, IMHO, but not so much so to justify the praise it garners.

12:18 PM  
Blogger Dwilkers said...

We watched The Departed this weekend. Oddly, I thought it was over the top but the wife said she liked it (she may have just been being oppositional - She's female after all). It was just TOO much violence, TOO much profanity, etc, to the point where I was numb at the end. It is a well made film though.

Anyway, I put Battle of Algiers in the queue.

1:30 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

I'm afraid to see The Departed for the same reasons I was afraid 4 years ago to see Gangs of NY. I don't want to see an inferior Scorcese movie. Just too depressing. And if it wasn't Scorcese, I wouldn't even consider seeing it.

With Gangs, I finally relented to the "c'mon, it's Marty, you gotta see it" voices in my head. And left disappointed. It wasn't "bad" by any means, but just one of a dozens of other big budget Hollywood bloat I'd have avoided if anyone else directed.

Scorcese's been on notice for a few years now.

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Applesaucer said...

"Scorcese's been on notice for a few years now."

I haven't had a truly satisfying Scorsese movie experience since Casino (1995). I also liked the Age Innocence a lot (1993). I guess you could argue that Scorsese was pretty much The Master from Taxi Driver (1976) through one of those two flicks -- or, undisputably, through Goodfellas (1990). You wanna throw in Mean Streets (1973) for old times sake? Fair enough. Cape Fear (1991) for "well-done-tight-thriller" sake? OK, fine.

For me, sometime after Goodfellas and before Bringing Out Your Dead -- my first really bad Scorsese experience -- he jumped the shark.

Bringing Out the Dead bored me from start to finish, Gangs of New York put me to sleep (no kidding, which is a shame since it looked like it would be really good, even sometime into the movie) and The Aviator left me cold with its slickness (not saying it was bad; just saying it didn't move me in any way).

I've almost given up on him and I don't trust the critics to give me an honest review of any of his flicks because they suck up to him so much, for one reason or another.

Applesaucer

5:06 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

Yeah. I'd say early 70s through early 90's. That's not bad, twenty years.

Like a few others, he has the rare honor of more than one unmistakeable classic. I won't put Taxi Driver or Raging Bull with Goodfellas, but they're both excellent movies, among the greats.

Not bad for one 15 year stretch. But among American directors, at least, nothing can match Coppola's 3 alltime-classics-in-seven-years run. That's 56 game hit streak kind of stuff.

I'm a big Woody fan, and what he did between 1977 and 1989 is pretty untouchable too.

5:37 PM  
Anonymous John Royal said...

"The Departed" is a huge improvement over "The Aviator," and it's a hell of lot better than "The Gangs of New York" which has got to be one of the most overrated movies of all time -- except for Daniel Day Lewis who really kicked ass.

Matt Damon's very good. Markie Mark is also very good. Leo's okay. Jack plays Jack. Scorsese tries for a David Mamet-type feel with the dialogue, especially in any scene with Wahlberg, and the actors do okay, but Scorsese just can't write it.

"The Departed's" easily Scorsese's best work in years, but then again, that doesn't say much. It's just that against the rest of the dreck nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, it just looks so superior.

9:56 AM  
Anonymous Mike said...

Not suprised that Wahlberg was good. I like in everything. He's Dirk Diggler and Tommy Corn for crissakes!

(Also one of the Three Kings, but I don't remember his name.)

"The Departed's" easily Scorsese's best work in years, but then again, that doesn't say much.

For whatever that's worth.

11:04 AM  
Blogger Rickey Henderson said...

I had issues with the last act of The Departed, but overall I liked it a lot. Wahlberg and Baldwin were terrific in it.

2:47 PM  

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