April 11, 2012

Must Watch Before You Die #28: 'The Battle of Algiers' (1966)

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.” - from Gillo Pontecorvo’s ‘The Battle of Algiers’ (1966).

It is one of those rare movies that refuse to age. Whether it’s the appeal of the content, or the brilliance of the craft, I believe its impact remains as powerful as ever was. If you feel otherwise, it can only be attributed to the several movies made after, and unarguably influenced by, this terrific film. That day, a colleague of mine told me that Anurag Kashyap’s ‘Black Friday’ (2007) was inspired by it. While watching the film, I was constantly reminded of it. Content-wise, and structure-wise, both are quite different, and ‘Black Friday’ is as original as films can be. But the grittiness of the docu-inspired style, the use of location as a character, the unbelievably natural performances, and the details of planning and execution of the moves of an urban warfare (or revolution and its suppression) are very similar in both films. In fact, I doubt any film telling a similar story can adopt a different approach and be as successful as ‘Algiers’ was. This is the biggest triumph of the film – it seems to have born out of its organic whole, the craft perfectly in sync with the content. It is one of the most painfully and shockingly ‘real’ films, told in the manner of an edge-of-the-seat thriller. That it is based on real incidents gives it a terrifying truthfulness that documentaries enjoy. Until date, revolutionary groups all over the world, as well as anti-terror outfits, screen this film for their members, to inspire them and make them understand the realities of urban guerrilla warfare. For me, the film also manages to remain more-or-less neutral in its political point-of-view, despite showing so much of violence and blood-bath from both sides. A Frenchman might disagree with me on this, but I felt the film resisted the temptation to take sides, for whatever reasons, and did not portray the French as downright ‘villains’ as a lesser film would have done. Perhaps it was honestly seeded in the harsh truths of our world or perhaps it just decided to be diplomatically correct, but the film works at various levels, deep and complicated.

Steven Soderbergh believes “It does everything that as a filmmaker you want a film to do. It works as a movie, it works as politics, it affects everyone who sees it in a very visceral way, and makes them think differently about a certain situation. Pontecorvo sort of just hit the bull’s eye.” I couldn't agree more. And I want to add that it also does everything that as a film-buff you want a film to do.


  1. I saw this movie 4 years back at Kala Ghoda. The thriller like feel of the movie keeps you riveted throughout. I still remember the lady trying to place the bomb scene. Keep posting.

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