Gillo Pontecorvo’s acclaimed war film, The Battle of Algiers, takes its viewers through the events of the Algerian War between 1954 and 1957, depicting the struggle between the FLN (National Liberation Front) and the occupying French Fourth Republic. A startling bleak, realistic look at human nature’s timeless capacity for terror and violence, it’s only through these years of conflict that freedom is finally gained in 1962. Opening with guerilla leader, Ali La Pointe hidden within a wall and cornered by French soldiers, Algiers backtracks to his humble, petty criminal beginnings and moves forward to events leading. After being contacted by FLN while in jail, La Pointe is guided and molded by El-hadi Jafar (played by real life resistance leader Saadi Yacef). His involvement with the insurgents rapidly builds deeper after several infiltrations with resulting blows to both sides. Despite this, it’s the shooting of a single police officer amoung such heinous violence that causes tensions to seemingly spiral deeper out of control leading to the involvement of Lt. Colonel Mathieu.
In a powerful moment, a member of the FLN assassinates an officer and upon dumping the weapon, flees. As forces storm the streets searching for the killer, an innocent day laborer, Laknan Abdullah becomes the target of a modern day witch hunt by dozens on French socialites standing high upon balconies. Despite having naught to do with the attack, he’s arrested. Later that evening, upon finding his address and noting Abdullah has several children and a wife, police Lt. Lucien leaves a casual card game to carry out retaliation. Hidden by the darkness of curfew, explosives are set off in the Upper Casbah killing and injuring dozens. Promising retribution of their own, the FLN plans and sends three attractive, French speaking women hidden by Parisian fashion across check points to the European sector with explosives set for thirty minutes. It’s in this scene, barely an hour in, that a vastly disturbing and ominous contrast is presented to us.
Through various experimental techniques, Algiers was filmed entirely in black and white with attention to detail creating an extremely authentic documentary style throughout most of the film. In particular, however, the attack by the three female members breaks away from this pattern with extremely intense, vibrant and crisp images. Within the context of the story itself, this helps to emphasis the sudden, uncomfortable contrast between societies: just moments before, we were presented with images of the dead, dying and wounded only to cross what’s little more than a barricade into a community of seemingly wholesome restaurants, boutiques and open air cafés. The scene in the café brilliantly furthers this. Fittingly dressed as a French socialite, the first of the three FLN members enters a café surrounded by easy going patrons enjoying lively conversation. The camera pans right and is followed by several close ups of women and children socializing, laughing and simply living. In a moment of possible hesitation after coming face to face with the very people who would quickly become casualties, the camera briefly focuses on her solemn expression and down to her purse under the seats. Nestled under the darkness of the counter, highlighting is brilliantly used to give an innocent almost angelic quality contrasting its intent and grim purpose. She sweeps it further away from the aisle, a reminder of the bloodshed in the Casbah that had so easily been swept under the blanketing night sky of curfew. Unlike Lt. Lucien who candidly used cowardice to commit his crimes, even stopping nonchalantly for drinks and gambling, we behold a single, very rare moment of humanity by the woman in the café as she slowly, uncomfortably scans the room.
By use of prop, costume and makeup, this scene is immensely striking in a number of ways. Prior to entering the café, modern cars, sidewalk tables adorned with colourful umbrellas, decorative window displays, trees surrounded by metal work and molded outdoor trash bins are all within our field of view. Simply put, the very essence of the hustle and bustle of city life is presented in this very isolated, out of place community. Her surroundings appear with little difference from what many would expect to behold on the streets of Paris and despite being a member of FLN, the woman herself seamlessly blends in. Adorned in fashionable, modern makeup and attire, her treatment by others is vastly opposite to those identical with only clothes to deviate them. Searching for a seat, a male patron makes way for her, offering casual chitchat in French, smiling. One cannot help but immediately feel uncomfortable as only minutes prior, Algerians were faced with dehumanizing, prejudiced insults and violence while with a modest change of clothing and styling, she’s seen as an equal.
Music and sound are key to creating the compelling dynamic of this scene. After being briefed and while heading to the shopping strip, Pontecorvo ingeniously makes use of imposing and intimidating Algerian drumming. The scene cuts to the woman walking confidently toward the café where the drumming immediately ceases and shifts to the quite ordinary sounds of a city. The honking of vehicles and the roar of passing engines suddenly stop as she enters the café: scanning her surroundings, the intense percussion clearly resumes. It’s only as the camera pans and she scans around the room for the second time, as previously mentioned, that we fade out to the chatter of patrons and clanks of dishes. This brings to mind the traditional, very complex drumming of Africa used in times of war and further helps to depict the woman’s determination and fury only lessened by a fluttering instant of empathy.
Through mise-en-scene and using various points of stark contrast, Pontecorvo challenges and questions our motivations and worth as human beings. The café, albeit an abrupt and fleeting moment is a pivotal scene in the movie that forces us to ask ourselves, is murder and systematic oppression so easily and swiftly executed when blinded by greed and minor differences? Is terrorism ever an ethical or justified solution to continual abuse and brutality? From the moment the film starts and eventually upon coming to full circle to the events shown in its opening, Algiers reminds us that every depraved, evil act is not incidental, but thoughtfully calculated and thus, can and will happen again. Freedom is merely a byproduct of a people’s idiosyncratic struggle and as Pontecorvo’s film despairingly shows its audience in black and white, is not without suffering.