In the film, as in history, officers are shot point black in the back. Riots break out. Checkpoints are set up. Yet, women still carry weapons through. In one of the most dramatic sequences in cinema history, three women move through the checkpoint without threat, bombs on their person. They enter their respective destinations, set their purses down and exit. Minutes later, the buildings and streets explode.
That 12+-minute stretch is brought to the forefront again later, when French troops watch footage of the checkpoint and see an innocent man being harassed while the women breeze by. The police aren’t stupid or careless, but the system is flawed and people die in part because of it.
One of the great strengths of The Battle of Algiers is its director’s objectivity. Pontecorvo shows the politics of the battle but takes no sides. Each human life lost is a tragedy, met with an Ennio Morricone score that mourns for all. Why must so many war films bog themselves down in siding with the politics? What makes them a villain and us the hero? In sidestepping glamour and not forcing biased patriotism onto the screen, Pontecorvo has made maybe the most honest and dramatic film of its kind.
In making the film, Pontecorvo (1919-2006) also employed mostly non-actors, shot at actual locations and filmed some scenes live to heighten the realism and chaos. Though no newsreel or archival footage was used (it could have seamlessly been worked in without the viewer noticing), the action is not unlike things we see on the news every day. (The parallels to this 21st-century war we find ourselves in are too obvious to be ignored.) Because of this, The Battle of Algiers will forever be relevant as a very real and unsettling look at both sides: the face that laughs and the face that cries.
Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth (37:32): This 1992 documentary, narrated and hosted by literary critic Edward Said, offers a look at the director’s (1919-2006) life, films and political leanings.
Marxist Poetry: The Making of The Battle of Algiers (51:23): This excellent 2004 documentary thoroughly traces the making of the film using clips and interviews with talent such as Pontecorvo, biographer Irene Bignardi, producer/actor Saadi Yacef, cinematographer Marcello Gatti, and composer Ennio Morricone.
Five Directors (17:18): Here, filmmakers Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing), Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding), Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), Steven Soderbergh (Che), and Oliver Stone (Platoon) offer their passionate and sincere thoughts on the style and impact of The Battle of Algiers.
Disc Two: History and the Film
Remembering History (1:08:15): This extensive documentary “attempts to reconstruct the Algerian experience of the battle for independence,” which lasted from 1954-’62. By getting comments from personnel including FLN military commander Saadi Yacef, General Jacques Massau, FLN member Mohammed Harbi, Zohra Drif-Bitat (who was recruited to plant bombs), and more, this piece is a personal and detailed look at the battle.
“États D’Armes” (28:26): This excerpt from Patrick Rotman’s 2002 documentary L’ennemi intime gets the French point of view of the battle, serving as a terrific counterpart to the previous documentary.
The Battle of Algiers: A Case Study (24:40): This sometimes scary piece, done for ABC News in 2004, gives an overview of the film’s influence on terrorists. Interviewees are former national coordinator for security and counterterrorism Richard A. Clarke and former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism Michael A. Sheehan.
Gillo Pontecorvo’s Return to Algiers (58:10): Here, the director returns to where he shot his classic 27 years earlier. A key moment in this documentary is Pontecorvo’s visit with then-president Mohamed Boudiaf, who was assassinated shortly thereafter (the director’s comments on the killing are also found within).
Also included with this Criterion Collection Blu-ray is 56-page booklet featuring an essay titled “The Battle of Algiers: Bombs and Boomerangs” by film scholar Peter Matthews, FLN leader Saadi Yacef’s account of his 1957 arrest, an excerpt from the screenplay, an interview with screenwriter Franco Solinas, and biographies of participants of the French-Algerian War.