Over the course of three years, a cynical French colonel (Martin) pits his wits against the freedom fighters of Algeria's National Liberation Front.
Based on actual events — although not without its moments of dramatic licence — Gillo Pontecorvo's film chronicles three years of insurrection and repression with such cine-veracity that the producers felt the need to append a caption at the end of the opening titles assuring viewers that `not one foot' of documentary material had been included.
Released just four years after Algeria had secured its independence from France, this technical and dramatic masterclass has lost none of its power to shock and provoke. American critic Pauline Kael compared its propagandist impact with Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will and even accused Pontecorvo of being that `most dangerous kind of Marxist, a Marxist poet'. Kael may have had a point about socialist agit-prop being afforded a cinematic and socio-political respectability that has always been denied right-wing film-making. But surely a more useful comparison could be made with Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945), which was also made on location, with a largely non-professional cast in a neo-realistic style that owed more to newsreel than studio artifice.
However, Pontecorvo avoids the melodramatics of Rossellini's film by presenting the victims of both the bomb blasts and the reprisals as genuine innocents rather than the faceless casualties of a revolutionary or imperialist cause. Consequently, the lingering shots of unsuspecting individuals before the carnage are every bit as disturbing as those depicting the rebels being tortured by Jean Martin's military. Pontecorvo's sympathies may be evident, but his conviction and condemnation are not devoid of compassion.
Despite winning the Golden Lion at Venice and being nominated for three Academy Awards, The Battle of Algiers was banned in France for five years. It's this contentiousness on which its reputation still rests. But it also has a vigour, a commitment and an intelligence that is absent from too much modern cinema.
The most important piece of political filmmaking since Battleship Potemkin.