The all time greats, those films which are said to be masterpieces – I usually appoach these with a considerable amount of trepidation. Some are dated and boring, some are difficult to relate to, some (and these are the worst ones) were probably always crap, but somehow the wool was pulled over the eyes of the critics (these are usually the worst “masterpiece” culprits) and the idea has somehow perpetuated. The Battle of Algiers absolutely has some soundtrack issues, and a trip to wikipedia was required to remind myself of the context, but for the first time in a while one of those so called masterpieces actually lived up to expectations. As a starting point the film looks amazing. The shots are simple though, filmed in black and white with a lot of handheld camera shots, you couldn’t mistake it for a documentary, but this does add a heightened sense of realism to proceedings. What really does it though are the settings, filmed on location, nothing seems false or staged, in sights and sounds alone there is something incredibly immersive in the general milieu of French occupied Algeria film depicts. On top of this the acting is outstanding, there is an intensity to the performances which gives the film a gravitas that could easily have been lost in stereotypes and artifice. And so – onto the subject matter. Much has been made of the films controversial depictions of both sides of a (probably rather regrettable, and incidently rather long) period of French intervention in Northern Africa. It depicts torture, terrorism and murder. What it doesn’t do, and this is probably where the controversy arises, is address the question of who is right and who is wrong. You could read the film in either way, perhaps the FLN are shown to be noble freedom fighters, or perhaps the it is the French military, who somehow always manage to look exceptionally sharp, who are glorified. Perhaps it is both, more likely though it is neither. The film tells us an important story, undoubtedly it is a problematic re-telling, but this is because in reality the events upon which it is based are far more problematic than the film could even hope to imply. It does an amazing job though of acknowleging (some) of those issues, without explicitly passing judgement, but also without shying away from the terrible implications of some of the descisions which were made by those involved. It is a masterpiece because it does all of this, and still manages to be a prescient and compelling today as it was when it was released.
The Battle of Algiers