12:39 pm Jul. 9, 2012
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Algeria's independence, Film Forum is screening Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966), a film widely acclaimed as one of the century's great political works of art, and one that is doubly relevant in the contemporary moment of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement.
But the political lessons of The Battle of Algiers are not strictly topical or didactic: it might even be that the film's cinematography has more to teach us today about how protests, mass movements, and revolution are imagined—in art, yes, but also in the imagination of their participants.
“The artist is present,” declares the title of the Marina Abramovic documentary also playing at Film Forum. The Battle of Algiers on the other hand, might fall under the directive “the artist is not present.” Absent are the “dialectical montage” and didactic rhythms of its silent-film forebears, Sergei Eisenstein's Strike and Battleship Potemkin, but also missing is the auteurist signature style that dominated Italian cinema of the '60s, whether Fellini's virtuosic choreography of six or eight people chattering, Antonioni's inexhaustibly attentive camera-eye, or Pasolini's projection of a hagiographic aura onto his rough subjects. Any such “vision” would be intrusive here. But this deletion of the auteur is not only a stylistic, but an absolutely political decision.
For 115 minutes, The Battle of Algiers tells the story of the snuffing out of the leadership of the underground Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), from 1954-1957. In the opening scene, the last surviving cell has been betrayed and surrounded—the rest of the movie is a flashback showing an unbroken succession of defeats leading up to this moment. “L'organisation n'existe plus,” the victorious French occupiers intone, almost clapping the dust from their hands. It is only in the epilogue, the last five minutes, that we glimpse daylight—an apparently spontaneous eruption in December 1960, as if overnight, of unyielding mass demonstrations, neither clandestine nor orchestrated.
In the last scene, we see the limits of this logic: a “headless” but (the voiceover tells us) surprisingly unified crowd achieves the miracle that the subterranean vanguard of the F.L.N. had only been able to pronounce and prepare the way for, making straight the path of the revolution that will be miraculously resurrected after two years of lying silent. The film's political thesis, therefore, concerns exactly the same questions as its artistic program: how to direct, whether direction is necessary. In one scene, the commander of the French paratroopers, Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin, the only professional actor onscreen), lays out the organization of the enemy: like a tapeworm, innumerable sections can be destroyed with no effect; if the head remains, it can always regenerate itself.
But how does one make a film that is, so to speak, decapitated? Take a look at one of the most suspenseful moments in the film, when three militant women working with the FLN are waiting in line at security checkpoints barring the way into the European quarter of Algiers. The women are tense with apprehension as to whether they will be allowed through, after which they will collect timed explosives and plant them in crowded public spaces, in retaliation for French bombing attacks in the Casbah. Will the women pass for frivolous colonial bourgeois and be allowed through? Their disguises work almost too well: the would-be bomber who has dyed her hair blonde has to endure the prolonged flirtatious attention of one of the soldiers. She responds coyly, flashing a smile—we know that she is swallowing bile.
Later in the film, Colonel Mathieu is screening footage from the checkpoints for his troops, so as to demonstrate how the enemy insurgent could be anyone. While he is speaking over this footage, here is that coy smile again!—the disguised bomber, once more undetected, slinking her way past the guards. It's the same moment, filmed from perhaps a yard to the right of where we first saw it, without sound, possibly concealed from view. This is how The Battle of Algiers sees—with the anonymous gaze that is just there, whether at a security checkpoint, or in newsreel footage, or an organization's internal recordings of its closed proceedings.
Although made by Italian Marxists, The Battle of Algiers rigorously subtracts the voice, gaze, and presence of European intellectuals. When Colonel Mathieu frowns at a reporter's mention of Sartre, ruefully sneering, “Why are the Sartres always born on the other side?”—we can only remark that we never see a Sartre in this movie (a European on the “other side”).
But this was not always the case. In the original draft of the film's scenario, Paul Newman (!) was to play a French reporter thrown into the seething revolutionary fervor of the Casbah. Although we don't have this version, an idea of what it might have looked like can be gathered from the films that Franco Solinas scripted before writing The Battle of Algiers. In a series of Spaghetti Westerns (Face to Face, The Big Gundown, A Bullet for the General, The Mercenary), Solinas was overwhelmingly preoccupied with the crisis of conscience experienced by a “civilized” European or American plunged into the liminal spaces of the West—usually the Mexican Revolution. But The Battle of Algiers is not a mere piece of Spaghetti Agitprop. In jettisoning the Paul Newman character for the final version of Battle of Algiers, Solinas duplicated the feat of the film's cinematography: the jettisoning of the European intellectual observer.
The final scenes are registered by a chorus of French news correspondents, almost as a travesty of Citizen Kane's assertive headline montage of “News on the March.” It can't be said that these European commentators “narrate” the scene, however, since they have no idea what they are witnessing. “After an apparent lull, for some unknown reason, on some obscure pretext, after two years of relative quiet, with the war contained mostly in the mountains, disturbances broke out again without warning and nobody knows why or how.”
In the staggering last shots, the exasperated French question, addressed to the crowd by megaphone, “What do you want?”—is answered by dispersed voices: “Independence! Our pride! We want our freedom!” and a piercing wave of ululating. A middle aged woman, grasping and shaking a flag, teeth bared and nostrils flaring, advancing and being pushed back over and over, an image of indomitable, offended dignity. None of this was here the day before, and suddenly it is no longer an idea or hope but inevitable fact.
G.K. Chesterton famously wrote, “The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen.” The translation of the intellectual leadership of a small activist core or vanguard into irresistible mass action—the bursting of an idea into being in the world—cannot be scheduled. Losses pile up, redoubts are abandoned, supporters are alienated by the risks involved. Defeat looms. The point is neither the “miracle” alone nor the patient martyrdom of militants alone. The point is instead the incalculable connection between the two—in the movie, this connection is transversed by a single cut eliding the years of furtive struggle. But there is no doubt that the filmmakers had long since staged their own vanishing—and miracle.
'The Battle of Algiers' plays at Film Forum through July 12.
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