In the white-stone bowels of the casbah, an Algerian woman of Islamic faith places a bomb in a crowded café. The patrons, who are French, mingle unknowingly, as an anticipation bordering on dread gathers within your chest; a moment later, the bomb goes off. To witness this naked act of terrorism in Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, a movie that asks the audience to sympathize not with the murdered civilians but with the rebel bomber, is to confront how much the world has changed since 1965, when the film was originally released – and also to realize, with a shudder, how much it has stayed the same. Nearly four decades ago, Pontecorvo anatomized the very form of modern terrorist warfare: the hidden cells, the cultish leaders, the brutish cycle of attack and counterattack. In moral terms, the situation he depicts is anything but parallel to the one that grips us today, yet his movie, which is being rereleased in select cities, casts an eerie shadow over a world rocked by the underground politics of fear and rage.
In the mid-’60s, Pontecorvo’s raw, seismic vision of a Marxist uprising was all but unprecedented in its firebrand atmosphere of documentary realism. So intense was his restaging of the Algerian revolution of 1954-62 that the producers felt compelled to add a title explaining that the movie had used ”not one foot” of newsreel footage. The film’s lightning vérité form was really the incarnation of its message – that revolution had arrived, here and now, as a wave of force that couldn’t be stopped.
If you see ”The Battle of Algiers” today, its unruly, headlong rush of ”objective” style, potent as it is, no longer carries the same ring of this-is-really-happening authenticity. Blasphemous as it may be to say in cinema-buff circles, the film has been far surpassed, in technique and execution, by any number of the movies it has influenced – by the hair-trigger anxiety of ”Salvador,” the virtuoso chaos of ”Bloody Sunday.” If there’s a downside to Pontecorvo’s method, it’s his gray-zone emotional neutrality, which cuts off our involvement with any of the principals as characters. Still, you won’t soon forget the face of Brahim Haggiag, who plays the revolutionary leader Ali as if he were channeling the misery of colonialism into a solitary stare of accusatory outrage.