'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, October 27, 2006

Film Notes: Gillo Pontecorvo, Director of The Battle of Algiers and Queimada: Dead at 86 (Part 1) 

I missed the passing earlier this month of one of the great radical filmmakers of my youth:

Gillo Pontecorvo, who has died aged 86, was a gentle man with kind, twinkling eyes, who, among innumerable achievements, directed the classic film The Battle of Algiers (1965). Edward Said said that The Battle of Algiers and Queimada (1969), Pontecorvo's next film, were the two greatest political films ever made. He also said that Pontecorvo's political work for the cinema made it possible for directors such as Costa-Gavras to emerge, as well as influencing other film-makers in the Third World.

During the 1960s, Pontecorvo became convinced that the anti-colonialist wars of the time were an important theme for a film. In 1962, he and fellow director Franco Solinas went to Algeria - as its war of independence against France was concluding - armed with false papers and the idea of building a story around a former paratrooper during that war. Franco Cristaldi, the producer, did not want to make the film, not least since the French extreme right-wing group, the OAS, was planting bombs against those who supported the Algerian cause.

Then, in 1964, after independence, former Algerian guerrilla Salah Baazi visited Italy in search of a director to make a film on the independence struggle. He met Pontecorvo, whose idea for Para, as the film was going to be called, did not appeal. Baazi did not want a film that treated the subject from a European point of view. Pontecorvo eventually proposed an alternative scenario, offering to work for nothing in case the film did not please the Algerians. In return, the then ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) would assist Pontecorvo and Solinas to find and interview activists. The writing of the screenplay ("a fiction written under the dictatorship of fact") was long and arduous, but when Pontecorvo arrived in Algiers, it was discovered that the script had been left on the roof of a car. Two weeks later sections of it appeared in a French rightwing newspaper.

The Algerian general strike of 1957 was the focus of the black and white film. All the players, with the exception of Jean Martin (Colonel Mathieu), were non-professionals. Pontecorvo co-wrote the score with Ennio Morricone and he continued to write scores for his films, maintaining they were structured with music in mind (he regarded The Battle of Algiers as having a "symphonic structure").

When The Battle of Algiers was screened at the Venice Film Festival in 1966, it received a great ovation. Pontecorvo maintained it was the most emotional moment of his life. He won the Golden Lion, but the French delegation left in protest and the film was not distributed in France until 1971. Death threats deterred cinema owners, and it was only through pressure from the director, Louis Malle, and others that it was eventually shown.

The Washington Post observed that the brilliance of The Battle of Algiers lies not only with its masterfully fictionalized documentary appearance, but equally with its subtle, humanistic portrayal of all participants in the conflict:

Based on interviews with soldiers and Resistance leaders, Mr. Pontecorvo and his frequent scriptwriting collaborator Franco Solinas showed the cruelty and humanity of all sides in the fight. The scenes of torture by the French authorities are weighed against the insurgents' massacre of young civilians at a cafe.

In another memorable scene, the French colonel who is the chief nemesis of the Algerian guerrillas lectures the visiting press about the political situation. He articulates an awareness that he is on the wrong side of history but that as a soldier, he has a role to fulfill.

The colonel's ambivalence is central to Mr. Pontecorvo's powerful filmmaking. "Pontecorvo makes many French soldiers and colonists credible and sympathetic figures, caught up in a larger, politico-economic pattern of exploitation," film historian David Thomson wrote. "In short, it is the more politically convincing because it does not manipulate its people."

In this, and the ironic stance required to execute it, Pontecorvo could be said, strangely enough, to be a cinematic descendant of Douglas Sirk and an anticipation of another of my favorite directors, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Indeed, Fassbinder was considered notorious by some for what they thought were overly empathetic portrayals of the ideological enemies of his time, whether developers, financiers, cops, soldiers or even influential ex-Nazis permitted by the US to have prominent roles in the West German republic.

Pontecorvo described his own feelings about the film:

"So many critics see The Battle of Algiers as propaganda," Mr. Pontecorvo told the New York Times in 1969. "But in the scenes of death, the same religious music accompanies both the French and Arab bombings. I am on the side of the Arabs, but I feel compassion for the French even if historically they were at fault. I do not say the French were bad, only that they were wrong."

"My subject," he said, "is the sadness and laceration that the birth of a nation means in our time."

Having watched The Battle of Algiers in the theater recently, I pondered how its significance has evolved with the passage of time. Initially understood as the transmutation of the Algerian independence struggle into an enduring, politically influential cultural creation, it is now something else as well, a disturbing contemplation about how the brutal suppression of an indigenous people can elevate the most calculating, most merciless practioners of violence to positions of power.

As Joe Allen observed:

While the film focuses on the terrorist tactics of the NLF against the French army and settlers, showing them to be products of necessity and repression, there is also an implicit criticism of such tactics.

Cognizant of the tragedy of subsequent Algerian history, especially the horrific insurgency of the 1990s, I thought that Pontecorvo must have been aware that the line between gangsterism and armed liberation struggle was often indistinct. As an Italian journalist and filmmaker, he must have known about the role of the Mafia in Italian politics, and the extent to which its methods could be extremely effective outside the world of criminal activity.

The fact that The Battle of Algiers was screened at the Pentagon prior to the invasion of Iraq has reinvigorated the film's iconic status, but the officers in attendance do not appear to have absorbed Pontecorvo's insight. Perhaps, in light of the subsequent trajectory of the war and occupation, they should watch it again.

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