Fifty years on, The Battle of Algiers is something of an oddity. It is, uncontroversially today, a classic; but “classic” is a term that intimidates and dissuades more than it attracts and entices. “Classic” tends to attach itself to films that either excel or innovate in at least one the three key ways films can excel or innovate—execution, meaning, and representation—but that’s no guarantee that they excel in all or even any of them. For every classic—Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The General—that delights, compels, and amazes no less today than decades ago, there are at least as many (probably many more) that confound, irritate, or bore the modern audience. Nobody would deny that The Battle of Algiers is important or interesting, and if you want to read insightful essays about the fascinating history, context, and impact of the film over its fifty years of life, you will find no shortage. But none of this answers the central question that the reviewer, subtly but importantly distinct from the critic, must answer: should you drop twelve bucks to see the new 4K restoration of it this weekend? This question I shall explicate hereafter, but to summarize: maybe.
The most striking thing about The Battle of Algiers to modern eyes is the unpredictable mix, equal part baffling and riveting, of stylistic elements that sometimes feel fresh, sometimes archaic, and sometimes just anachronistic. One moment, the handheld camera work and quick cutting make you wonder just how much Paul Greengrass is paying the Pontecorvo estate in royalties; the next scene feels straight out of 1950s Hollywood. Combined with Ennio Morricone’s amazing score and the reliance on zoom—both of which are innovations that didn’t stick, tagging the film in a particular moment with neither ancestors nor descendants—the feeling is often one of mishmash and whiplash. That is is not to say the film doesn’t have an impact on its audience, and usually its intended one. There are a pair of consecutive sequences where Arabs clear rubble and corpses after a bombing, shot from low handheld angles set to unbearably mournful music, followed by a nailbiting sequence of escalating cuts leading to a series of bombing in the European quarters, remains one of the most emotionally affecting stretches of cinema I’ve ever watched.
Yet what makes The Battle of Algiers so intriguing and frustrating is its subject matter, and how it approaches it. For The Battle of Algiers is, relentlessly, singlemindedly, uncompromisingly about the Battle of Algiers – the three-year urban insurgency and counter-insurgency fought between the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) and the French authorities. Yet this only highlights what it’s not about. It’s not really about any of the individuals involved in that battle, though it does focus on memorable performances from Brahim Hadjadj as FLN leader Ali la Pointe and Jean Martin as French Colonel Mathieu. It’s not really about why that battle happened, though whether Pontecorvo expected his audience to know the reason or whether he simply felt it was irrelevant now feels ambiguous in 2016. And it’s not about the war between Algeria’s Arabs and the French—a war that was not only fought all across Algeria, not merely in its capital, but shattered the Fourth French Republic itself, with repercussions for the history of all of Africa and Europe for years to come.
Instead, The Battle of Algiers is narratively and thematically as claustrophobic and suffocating as its shots of tense crowds and winding alleys. Its focus on the mechanics of asymmetric warfare, its uncompromising and deeply humane view of the costs of that kind of struggle, have been rightly lauded through the years. But its admittedly spellbinding storytelling unwinds towards the film’s conclusion, whose coda feels inexplicable in light of solely what precedes it. The Battle of Algiers is, yes, a classic. It’s also genuinely thrilling and fascinating for most of its two hours. Whether its glaring lack of context or so many of the trappings of traditional cinematic storytelling reveal weaknesses in it, or weaknesses in us, is an open question.