Styles of film-making dip in and out of vogue over time, but it's clearer now more than ever that Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers has its hooks in contemporary thriller cinema. The documentary-style approach to action films is frequently attributed to the immediacy of Paul Greengrass's mostly superb oeuvre, but after watching The Battle of Algiers, you can see where Greengrass got his own inspiration.
Although Pontecorvo is an Italian director, Battle is spoken primarily in French and Arabic. The film dramatizes key events in the Algerian War, in which that Northern African country tried to break free of over a century's worth of occupation by France. There are several characters in the film that we get to know on a cursory level, but they are really more representational than they are intended to be actually fleshed-out humans. This is not necessarily a knock against the film, as it is far from being intended as a character study, and is more of a survey of an incredibly tense and fraught time.
The best way to discuss the film is in terms of individual scenes. The most compelling of them all features three Algerian, Muslim women of different ages who dress like the French women who occupy their country. They do so in order to bypass the strict military checkpoints that are set up to inspect the belongings of Algerians passing through, but allow the French to move freely. These women are part of the resistance, however, so their goal is to smuggle explosives into public places. One of these is a heavily crowded bar and cafe, where numerous French civilians are whiling away their time dancing and drinking. These people have no stake in the conflict, beyond the comfort of their existence in this foreign country. They are non-military, and have done no direct harm to the Algerians. Yet, we watch as the rebelling women plant the bombs, leave, and see the aftermath of their destruction. To call the scene chilling is an understatement.
Despite his you-are-there aesthetic, Pontecorvo's politics seem to skew neutral. The aforementioned scene is portrayed as objectively as possible, with only editing and the natural drama of the situation there to provide emphasis. The women who commit this crime are terrorists, but Pontecorvo does not force us to think about them one way or another. Their actions are presented without embellishment, so we can be judges for ourselves.
These women perform this attack in direct retaliation to the French military-driven destruction of their own people's homes and lives, most of whom are civilians themselves. Like many civil wars, citizens are caught in the crossfire, the brutal tragedy of which Pontecorvo never allows us to look away from. Pontecorvo's decision to view the events of the film like a journalist is a profoundly important one, as we feel as though we are receiving history, not just the strict interpretation of history.
The Battle of Algiers reverberates today, for better or for worse. It's low-resolution, grainy cinematography makes sense for its subject, in the same way that 2014's '71 very successfully used a similar approach. Pontecorvo increased the verisimilitude by employing mainly non-actors in the lead roles, a fact that has escaped modern directors. This is why Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, which employed mostly lesser-known actors (at least at the time), is far more engrossing than a star-studded affair like Lone Survivor. Most importantly, Pontecorvo focuses on the impact of war on normal people, who have been cornered into having a death wish, not because of nobility, but because they had no better choice.