I'd give anything to have seen the faces of the wonks and military types, guests of the charmingly named Office for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, as they emerged from a Pentagon screening last summer of Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 revolutionary epic The Battle of Algiers.
The movie tells the story of the struggle in the mid-1950s between Algerian nationalists and French occupying forces who, by means of brutal repressive tactics, managed to crush the rebellion, only to lose the war for the hearts and minds of the Algerian public.
There are no exact parallels between that situation and our current adventures in Iraq -- we are not, or not yet, a colonial presence there, and only the deluded would characterize Saddam Hussein as a revolutionary hero. Yet there's a frightening resemblance between the film's masterful depiction of terrorist insurgents -- women with guns under their robes, packs of kids yelling epithets, random assassinations of policemen -- as they eat away at the superior force of their masters, and the exhausting war of attrition we're witnessing nightly on CNN.
With canny timeliness, Rialto Pictures is re-releasing The Battle of Algiers, in a freshly struck 35mm print with new sub-titles from the French and Arabic. The film, which served as a bible for the radical left in the late '60s (I must have seen it five times or more as an undergraduate), and was banned in France for several years after its release, is a classic of politically engaged filmmaking and is based on a book by Saadi Yacef, a former FLN leader who also produced the picture and played a version of himself. Shot in black and white with mostly non-pro actors, the movie, with its grainy, documentary style and ardent immediacy, owes a large debt to Roberto Rossellini and other Italian neo-realists. The fevered crowd scenes, shot almost entirely in close-up, are straight out of Eisenstein.
As a Jew, a communist and a resistance leader in fascist Italy, Pontecorvo had ample reason to identify with the oppressed. The Battle of Algiers wears its political affinities proudly on its sleeve: Scenes of the systematic torture of terrorist suspects are unsparingly graphic (and, in one controversial case, accompanied by a Bach chorale); again and again we hear the French colonialists voice their contempt for the "dirty Arabs" they've ruled with unbridled arrogance for 130 years.
Still, Pontecorvo is evenhanded in his regret over the lost lives on both sides -- the score, by turns percussive and mournful, which he wrote with Ennio Morricone, underlines the devastation in parallel scenes of Algerian and European bodies being pulled from the rubble. He is far from starry-eyed about the brutal tactics of Islamic fundamentalists in purging drugs, alcohol and prostitution from the Casbah. And he is at pains to avoid demonizing the oppressor -- the colonel in charge of subduing the terrorists is not a sadist but a professional who sees torture as an unavoidable tool of his mission. It's he, after all, who challenges the stunned French press with the question "Should we be in Algeria?"
The Battle of Algiers was made during the full flower of anti-colonial sentiment, relatively uncomplicated by the fears of global terror that plague us now. September 11 brought the war home, and the Bush administration has stirred the pot by propelling us into occupation of a country that likely had little connection with the forces who attacked New York City, yet almost certainly will forge one in the years to come.
How will Pontecorvo's film play now that we have learned to fear Islamic fundamentalism? In the movie's most shocking set piece, three Islamic women dressed as Europeans saunter through a French checkpoint to set bombs in public places. One of the women gazes sadly around the bar at patrons who are about to die. It's a moment of phenomenal cinematic and emotional power and, perhaps, a rare lapse into wishful thinking on the part of the director. One doesn't have to believe that history has an irrefutable inner logic to conclude from recent history that those who, in acts of opposition, acquire the habit of terrorism frequently become addicted to it once they assume power.
Algeria won its independence in 1962. In the early '90s, the country's Islamist party was elected by a solid majority, then prevented from taking office by a secular military. The civil war that followed, which has claimed thousands of lives, offers a lesson in the confusion and resort to absolutism that have emerged as the tragic legacy of empire and occupation.
It would be heartening to learn that there was a colonel who stood up at the Pentagon screening and asked -- should we be in Iraq?