The Battle of Algiers, Blu-ray (2 discs) (1966/2011)
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Cast: Jean Martin, Brahim Haggiag, Saadi Yacef
Studio: Janus Films/The Criterion Collection 249 [8/9/11]
Video: 1.85:1 for 16:9 B&W 1080p HD
Audio: French & Arabic PCM mono
Extras: “Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth” – documentary narrated by critic Edward Said; “Marxist Poetry: The Making of The Battle of Algiers” – documentary incl. interviews with Pontecorvo, composer Ennio Morricone & others; Discussions with Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Steven Soderbergh and Oliver Stone on the film’s influence, style, and importance; Production gallery; Theatrical and rerelease trailers; “Remembering History” – documentary on the Algerian battle for independence; “Etats d’armes” – documentary excerpt with French officers recalling the use of torture and execution combatting the Algerian rebellion; “The Battle of Algiers: A Case Study” – video piece with U.S. counterterrorism experts; “Gillo Pontecorvo’s Return to Algiers” – documentary on the filmmaker’s revisit after three decades of independence; Illustrated printed booklet with essay by film scholar Peter Matthews, excerpts from NFL leader Saadi Yacef’s account of his arrest, excerpts from the screenplay, interview with cowriter Franco Solinas, Short bios on key figures in the war by political science scholar Arun Kapil.
Length: 121 minutes
A unique and amazing film which not only stands up perfectly in today’s world but is propitiously-timed with the current independence movement in the Arab world, not to mention the timing of the first Criterion reissue on standard DVD having come out during the Abu Ghraib torture headlines. It is sad to learn from the documentaries in the loaded extras that Pontecorvo never made another film anything like The Battle of Algiers and in fact supported himself directing TV commercials. His use of a mock documentary, cine-realité style – with handheld camera, grainy black & white stock – is so effective in immersing the viewer in the story that in some of the original showings of the film it was preceded by a warning saying that none of the footage came from actual newsreels.
The film is probably the most influential political film in history, and has also influenced a variety of other directors of both features and TV in the years since. Some of them talk directly about how the film affected them in one of the excellent extras. The Battle of Algiers focuses on recreation of a key year—1957—in the long struggle of the Algerian people from the occupation of France—which had begun in 1832. During the ‘50s violence escalated on both sides and included children shooting soldiers in the street, Arab women switching their djellabas for European dresses so they could go into cafes and leave bombs, and torture on both sides.
The film concentrates on the main resistance movement, the FLN, and the increasingly strong counter-revolutionary efforts of the French military—especially the paratroopers brought in in 1957. However, there were other organizations on the left and right—some supporting the French and others the independence movement. Some of them carried out equally terrible violence against one another. However, as time went on the FLN succeeded in destroying most of the other independence groups. The U.N. did very little; sitting back and giving the resistance no support. 1957 was a bad year for the resistance, as the character Colonel Mathieu of the paratroopers (who represented the French military leadership in the film and was the only professional actor Pontecorvo used) stepped up his ruthless campaign to destroy the FLN. Eventually all its leaders were either in prison or had been killed by the French. However, after two fairly quiet years, the independence movement came forth with increased force as major parts of the population now supported it, and in 1962 Algeria finally won its longed-for independence.
While the hi-def Blu-ray transfer doesn’t add that much to the stark documentary-style B&W footage of the film, and the age of the mono soundtrack can’t be disguised with DTS-HD Master Audio restoration, there was an advantage in the 50GB capacity of Blu-ray discs. (Actually both film restorations look very good, and not that grainy.) It means that all the fine bonus features of the Special Edition 3-disc DVD set could be moved over to just 2 discs on this Blu-ray package, but it’s still more expensive than the DVD version.
— John Sunier