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Rocked the Casbah: The Battle of Algiers

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Tonight I finished watching Gillo Pontecorvo’s riveting 1965 film about the Algerian struggle for independence. In a word or two: rent it. For me, it was nothing short of amazing. I’m too tired to write a proper review, as it were, but it’s a film about which much has been said. I would point those interested to the review published last year (maybe two years ago?) in New York Magazine when the film was released on DVD.

Some quick facts:

  • Based on a book by Saadi Yacef, the real-life rebel leader of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), who plays a fictional version of himself in the film, which he produced after approaching the director
  • Used as a training film by the Black Panthers
  • Screened by the Pentagon prior to the Iraqi occupation
  • Amazing realism; hard to believe none of it is documentary footage and that all but one of the actors are non-actors
  • Shot in B&W
  • Ennio Morricone film score
  • French w/ English subtitles
  • Nominated for Best Director, Best Foreign Film, Best Screenplay by the Academy Awards and received the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival
  • Features a few torture scenes that really put the Abu Ghareb atrocities in focus; yet, they’re not the prolonged, gruesome scenes that typify today’s films
  • Sympathetic (perhaps rightly so) to the Algerian point of view

While there are loads of differences between the French/Algerian engagement and the U.S/Iraqi occupation, this is a timeless film that shows exactly how violence and terrorism can escalate on both sides until the only damage being perpetrated is collateral.

Some of the best dialogue comes during a press conference with one of captured rebel leaders, Ben M’Hidi, who stands up to the media in the most composed and dignified manner. His suit is wrinkled yet immaculate, and he wears his glasses poised just so, while the military commander stands nearby, ready to end the show at a moment’s notice. One reporter respectfully asks, “Isn’t it cowardly to use your women’s baskets to carry bombs which have taken so many innocent lives?” M’Hidi replies coolly, “Isn’t it even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill many thousands of times more? Obviously planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, sir, and you can have our baskets.” When asked if he thinks the liberation movement has any chance of succeeding, he states that the liberation movement “has more of a chance of defeating the French Army than the French have of changing the course of history.”

In another telling scene, M’Hidi has a rooftop conversation with Ali LaPointe, an uneducated laborer who has risen through the ranks after being radicalized during a prison stint. Ali has come to embrace fully the “by any means necessary” school of thought and trusts only violence to get the job done. M’Hidi, cast as the intellectual style revolutionary tells Ali that “Acts of violence don’t win war. Neither wars nor revolutions. Terrorism is useful as a start. But then the people themselves must act. That’s the rationale behind [civil disobedience]…. It’s hard enough to start a revolution, even harder to sustain it, and hardest of all to win it. But it’s only afterwards, once we’ve won, that the real difficulties begin.”

The third leader is Jaffar, the character based on the real life personage of Yacef. He is the strategist. Yet to pigeonhole these people is to do a disservice to the film, which depicts the merchant class side by the side with the laboring class and women and children mobilized as well. The women, in particular, are shown as full participants, supporting the movement in ways that the men cannot. While certain protagonists get more attention than others, the film seems quite balanced. The streets of the Casbah serve as a protagonist as well. With the full depiction of the city of Algiers, including the European Quarter, I felt like those events of 1957, were of this century, not the last.

I’ve stayed up much later than I intended and had more to say than I thought I had energy for, but I am just that taken with the film. It’s a stunning, mesmerizing, and well paced movie that I easily give my highest recommendation, especially if you’re into political thrillers or are history buff. Please check it out if you have the chance.

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About mpho

  • Aaman

    It is a great film – I’ve watched it many times, the relevance and depth is stunning.

    Nice review

  • mpho

    Thanks for the compliment, Aaman. Have you seen the bonus material on Disc 2 of the DVD version? From Netflix: This bonus disc includes the documentary “The Making of The Battle of Algiers,” which features interviews with the film’s director, actors and various crew members; the documentary “The Dictatorship of Truth,” which explores the director’s politics as they relate to his filmmaking; and a third documentary featuring directors Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh and Oliver Stone discussing the importance of the film.


    I was supposed to watch it in class but I was tired to take all the notes. Thanks for the refresh.