The Battles of Algiers

dir. Pontecorvo

Opens Fri May 7

Cinema 21

In spite of the four decades that have passed since the events in the 1965 film The Battle of Algiers, the parallels between France's dwindling command over their colonies and our own country's nascent imperialism are eerie and ominous. Produced before the height of the Vietnam War and long before the U.S. military occupation of Iraq, The Battle of Algiers is perhaps the most humane and relevant cinematic anatomy of a revolution against a foreign military power.

The story loosely traces a narrative arc as a young Algerian, Ali La Pointe (played by Brahim Haggiag), matures from street hustler to freedom fighter. Told in brief vignettes, the film catches snapshots from 1957 until 1962, when Algiers finally ousted the French. When he's first introduced to Ali, he is hustling three-card monte in the back alleys of the Casbah. When the French police try to bust up the game, Ali flees--but, as he turns a corner, some cavalier French teen trips him. Faced with the decision to continue his escape or stand up for his pride, Ali clocks the French man hard in the nose.

In the next scene, Ali is in jail as a Muslim leader is lead out to a starkly empty courtyard, where his head is promptly guillotined. There are no words. From his jail cell, Ali looks on.

What's most remarkable about The Battle of Algiers is how tender the portrayal of Ali's transformation unfolds. Filled with as much youthful anger and undirected vengeance as James Dean, Ali is slowly shaped by his Muslim faith. His mentor teaches him patience and a sense of justice. These virtues transform him into a principled killer. But not only does Ali turn his crusade against the French, but also against cleansing his own population from pimps, winos, and infidels. The inclusion of these scenes broadens the Algerian revolution to be not only a racial fight, but a noble mission. In the same way Robert De Niro is demented but gallant in Taxi Driver, Ali's motives also have a disturbing gravitational pull that justifies killing and all-out warfare, even when it means planting bombs in cafes and racetracks. The film may be 40 years old, but with the U.S. military making the same mistakes in Iraq, it has only become more relevant.