The film documents the violent and bloody clashes during the 1950s between French colonialists and the Algerian National Liberation Front, whose guerillas battled for independence.
A breathtaking white-knuckle ride, The Battle of Algiers shows the escalating political fury of Muslim Algerians fighting a covert urban war in the Arab Casbah and European quarter of Algiers. In response, the French forces, led by charismatic military genius Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin), use every tactic at their disposal -- including torture and murder -- to regain the upper hand.
The film's urgency derives from its radical form. Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo shot it as a documentary-style restaging of historical events. The blend of newsreel-style realism, handheld camerawork, amateur actors and political fire-in-the-belly recalls the similarly impassioned work of Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein (The Battleship Potemkin). The film's cinema verite immediacy has made it into a highly regarded masterpiece of political filmmaking.
Banned by the French for many years, the film has since become legendary for both film students and activists. It served as a kind of training film for '60s-era radicals inspired by the Algerian people's revolution, but also has been studied by contemporary American military strategists engaged in their own Iraqi quagmire. In fact, the Pentagon recently held a screening of The Battle of Algiers to study how the film's depiction of revolutionary tactics might help them better understand guerilla terrorism in Iraq.
The film opens with petty criminal Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) undergoing a Malcolm X-style political education in an Algerian prison. In one of the film's most powerful scenes (and the film is loaded with them), La Pointe witnesses the beheading of an Algerian dissident in prison who invokes "Allah" as he walks to his death. You can see in La Pointe's eyes how chaotic ignorance blooms into radicalized, laser-sharp understanding.
Battle of Algiers is a political education for contemporary viewers, too. Anyone seeking insight into radical Muslims' opposition to Western military might and "decadence" need look no further than this film.
The Battle of Algiers opens Feb. 27 at Lefont Garden Hills Cinema, 2835 Peachtree Road