Rock the Casbah

Rock the Casbah

By Gregg Barrios

'Battle of Algiers' raises timeless questions for occupying forces

Watching Gillo Pontecorvo's classic film, The Battle of Algiers, nearly 40 years after its initial release is both exhilarating and educational. There is not one false moment in the film. Interestingly, its current theatrical re-release was sparked after it was screened last summer at the Pentagon's Orwellian Office for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict just as our troops occupied Baghdad.

A disclaimer at the onset states: "Not one foot of newsreel or documentary film was used." The use of stark black-and-white cinema verité techniques heightens our experience of Algeria in the 1950s when it was struggling to wrest itself free from its French colonizers.

Our interest immediately zeroes in on Ali La Pointe, a petty street hustler in the Muslim ghetto of Algiers, La Casbah. Initially, viewers might expect that a film set in the Casbah will reflect the foreign intrigue of the classic French film Pepe Le Moko or its Hollywood remake, Algiers. In Battle, however, this city within the larger city is involved in a real life-and-death struggle.

When a French matron fingers La Pointe to the police, they denounce him as "a dirty Arab." Ali in turn brutally assaults one of his accusers. In his face we see 130 years of Algerian pent-up hatred for their colonial masters.

Ali's activism and induction into the FLN (the Algerian National Liberation Front) is triggered in prison after witnessing the beheading of a fellow inmate for a minor crime. In the Casbah, it was the not the best of times, but the worst. One can picture Madame De Farge mindlessly knitting as prisoners like Ali give rise to their fallen comrade's death cry: "Long Live Algeria!"

In a gripping sequence, three Muslim women disguised as garish Europeans carry explosives in handbags from the sealed-off Casbah to the outer city. We glimpse their true feelings as they walk among the French elite and into an outdoor bistro, a dance hall, and the Air France airport waiting room to deposit their deadly cargo.

Battle of Algiers

Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo; writ. Gillo Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas, based on a book by Yacef Saadi; feat. Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi, Samia Kerbash, Mohamed Ben Kassen (NR)
Pontecorvo doesn't portray the Algerians as saints nor the French as evil villains. Both resort to terrorist tactics including torture, bombings, and random killings of innocents. In war, every side is forced to compromise its moral stance.

When the violence escalates, the populace welcomes the French paratroopers to contain the uprising. The focus then shifts to Colonel Mathieu, an astute yet calculating military leader, who fought in the Resistance in World War II and against the Communists in Indochina. Still, his methods for winning the battle include the use of torture in order to gather intelligence information and crush the FLN.

When this film was first released, it was a pointed lesson for another war: the one in Vietnam that the French, and then the Americans lost. Is it any wonder that the French now oppose the Battle of Iraq?

While this election year almost demands a mandatory viewing of this film, it also merits discussion and study just as Bush's Pentagon staff did last summer.

During a press conference in Battle, Colonel Mathieu chastises the French media. He pointedly asks them, "Why are we in Algeria?"

We might well ask the same of Iraq. •

By Gregg Barrios

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