On June 1, 1954, less than a month after France's defeat in Indochina, the United States established a counter-insurgency mission in Saigon. By then the French were already embroiled in the apex of another imperialist folly, this time in North Africa. The Battle of Algiers is a cinematic look at the consequences of occupation, a lesson Americans may now be learning all over again since venturing into the Vietnamese quagmire a half-century ago.
A new print of Gillo Pontecorvo's acclaimed 1965 docudrama screens at 7 and 9:30 p.m. on May 22 at Dartmouth's Loew Auditorium in Hanover, New Hampshire. Although the director's sympathies are clearly with the Islamic rebels, his film was unspooled for Pentagon officials late last summer. Those military moviegoers were asked to contemplate the downside of an intelligence operation that uses repressive measures against Third World adversaries. The message seems to have gone unheeded in Iraq.
The Battle of Algiers chronicles an Algerian uprising in the mid-1950s, when the indigenous Muslim majority sought independence from 125 years of colonial rule. Pontecorvo offers a reenactment of historic events with a nod to Italian neo-realist classics such as Open City. Remarkably, he does this with only one professional actor and a large cast of ordinary people.
An epic struggle for self-determination begins as the National Liberation Front, led by the charismatic Djafar (Yacef Saadi, a revolutionary whose actual experiences are conveyed in the script), sets up a network of guerrilla cells to fight the power. He also primes the local population by wiping out rampant alcoholism, drug abuse and prostitution.
Djafar recruits an illiterate petty criminal named Ali (Brahim Haggiag), who has been radicalized in jail by the guillotine beheading of a political prisoner. He is soon helping the NLF in a campaign to assassinate French gendarmes.
The authorities crack down by sealing off the ancient Casbah, which serves as the rebel stronghold. Middle-class expatriates who consider Algeria their playground become more racist than ever.
This volatile clash of cultures turns deadlier when the police commissioner dynamites an Arab apartment building. The casualties include many young children. A mass demonstration ensues, but the NLF has other plans.
During the inevitable escalation, devout women shed their veils and dress in modern clothing. They pass unchallenged into the European sector carrying time bombs in their pocketbooks. The target: places where French civilians gather.
The soundtrack's propulsive drumming during this 15-minute sequence is arguably the most memorable part of a dynamic score composed by Pontecorvo and Ennio Morricone -- whose oeuvre ranges from the iconic themes for Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s to the music for contemporary blockbusters such as both volumes of Kill Bill.
Although less celebrated over the years, cinematographer Marcello Gatti gives the black-and-white Battle a sense of urgency. When the film opened in the U.S., a New York Times critic described the visual quality as "amazing photographic virtuosity and pictorial conviction."
That's as good a reason as any to see the movie in a theater rather than renting the DVD or video. But another compelling argument for a first-time or repeat viewing of this masterpiece is how it resonates given the current zeitgeist.
The brutal treatment of detainees in Algiers escalates with the arrival of paratroopers in 1957. Colonel Mathieu, a veteran of the Indochine war played by seasoned thespian Jean Martin, is the kind of commander who believes that only aggressive interrogation of suspects will foil a clandestine enemy.
But the initially supportive public back home starts denouncing the army's abuses. French society is increasingly traumatized by the shame of its overseas inhumanity.
The specter of Donald Rumsfeld is channeled when a reporter asks Mathieu about his methods for extracting information. "The word 'torture' doesn't appear in our orders," the soldier insists, adding a by-any-means-necessary caveat: "You all agree that we must stay."
If American forces must stay in Iraq, perhaps military leaders should show The Battle of Algiers every evening for the guards at Abu Ghraib.
The British occupied India from 1765 to 1947. Maybe the best revenge for that 182-year intrusion is the popularity of Bollywood among Indian communities worldwide. In addition to the requisite song-and-dance routines, Main Hoon Na presents a plea for peace in the conflict with neighboring Pakistan -- a lethal legacy of the former empire. Farah Khan's directorial debut, a three-hour romantic action flick, is on tap May 23 for a 1 p.m. matinee at Merrill's Showcase in South Burlington.