Now showing at the Pentagon ...
Why is this month an excellent time for a national reissue of "The Battle of Algiers," a 1965 production from Algeria and Italy that has been little seen since its original run?Skip to next paragraph
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It's not only because Gillo Pontecorvo's tough-minded film is a taut, suspenseful thriller. The bigger reason is the state of world affairs. So jolting is this movie's current relevance that it was reportedly screened at the Pentagon last summer as part of preparations for the occupation of Baghdad.
Although it was made almost 40 years ago, the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and the ongoing violence in Iraq make "The Battle of Algiers" at least as compelling now as in the past. Like all masterpieces, it speaks to later ages as powerfully and intelligently as to its own.
And one of its many messages to us is that the beginning of the 21st century isn't really a later age at all. We are still caught in limited mind-sets, moral uncertainties, and historical amnesias that jarringly resemble those Pontecorvo portrays.
The movie takes place in the mid-1950s, when tensions in Algeria are building to a breaking point. A lingering remnant of the old colonial age, this Islamic nation has long been under French rule, and its National Liberation Front (FLN) thinks militancy and violence are the only routes to liberation. First come propaganda and provocation, then guerrilla warfare complete with assassinations and bombings.
Still psychologically wounded by their recent defeat in Vietnam, the French authorities are determined not to let another uppity third-world colony drive them out. Convinced that moral clarity is on their side, they send in a no-nonsense colonel who trains his troops in what he regards as inescapable realities of war, including the notion that "the end always justifies the means" when terrorism is the enemy. A result of this reasoning is the use of torture, which leads many French citizens to take a more critical look at the brand of moral clarity their leaders espouse.
Filmed on real locations with a largely nonprofessional cast, "The Battle of Algiers" is a quintessential docudrama, although that term had not been invented when Pontecorvo directed the movie from ideas jotted down by an FLN chief serving time in a French prison. That leader, Yacef Saadi, ended up coproducing the picture and playing a character based on himself. Pontecorvo and the movie ended up with multiple Oscar nominations.
Critics and viewers have hailed "The Battle of Algiers" not only for its 1960s-style revolutionary zeal but for its dexterous balancing of opposing viewpoints - a feat that deserves especially close study now, when stunningly similar issues again perplex the world. Does hostility take cultural as well as political forms? Is terrorism a legitimate tool when more sophisticated weapons are beyond your reach? Are human rights dispensable as long as the word "terror" is invoked often enough by authorities?
See this extraordinary film not for tidy answers, but for fresh ways of pondering these crucial questions.
• Not rated: contains violence.