Criterion has come through again with another fantastic release. This time, the company is bringing cinephiles everywhere the 1966 classic, The Battle of Algiers. It’s a film that is thoroughly deserving of its place in the Criterion Collection as it’s provocative, riveting, electrifying and even 40+ years later, it still holds up as an outstanding and relevant piece of cinema.
For those unfamiliar with Gillo Pontecorvo‘s stunning film, it revolves around the 1954-1962 revolution that led to the demise of French colonial rule in Algeria. The main character, Ali LaPointe (Brahim Hadjadj), is a street criminal who, after joining the National Liberation Front, becomes something of both a hero and a wildly notorious revolutionary.
This being my first time watching the film, I wasn’t sure how it would hold up. There are a lot of films that while considered classic when they came out, are now seen as nothing but over hyped movies that audiences of today can’t enjoy. With The Battle of Algiers, that’s not the case. The film is as compelling as I imagine it must have been in the 1960’s and Pontecorvo’s brilliant direction can still be appreciated even in today’s world of 3D and CGI.
The shocking gritty reality of the film will leave many thinking that Pontecorvo used newsreel footage to craft his masterpiece. The docudrama leans more towards being a documentary in terms of its visuals but in fact, no newsreel footage was used. This was all shot by the director and each shot oozes with startling authenticity.
While the visceral violence doesn’t manage to shock in today’s world, it’s still potent and unsettling. As moral ambiguity hangs in the air, Pontecorvo never clearly takes a side. The film achieves a perfect sense of balance that reminds us that no one is absolutely right and no one is absolutely wrong. The film portrays the terrorists as heroes and the French as the villains.
Both sides do morally wrong things to advance their cause and both sides believe that they’re right. One side is juxtaposed with the other and the film demands that we confront our feelings on the issue.
Tense plotting and sharp editing will keep viewers pinned as Pontecorvo brings a sense of immediacy to every scene. You’re put right in the middle of each scene as the authenticity, superb atmosphere and extraordinary camerawork keep you hooked for the entire runtime. This really is a triumph on almost every technical front.
It’d really be hard to fault the film for anything. A couple shoddy performances (Pontecorvo rarely used professional actors) and one or two scenes that drag are about the only complaints I had here. And in the grand scheme of things, they really don’t have much of a negative effect on the film at all. Then again, the non-professional actors are also what adds to the films’ authenticity, so it’s a bit of a double edged sword.
It’d be futile to go on telling you all the good things about The Battle of Algiers because it’s already considered a bonafide classic by most. Just know that this is a film that has a lot of relevance in today’s world, with parallels to a number of real world events that can be drawn from it. If you haven’t yet seen the film, there’s no better time than now. Criterion has given this one an excellent treatment and this is a disc that deserves a spot in any cinema fan’s collection.
As expected, the audio, video and special features shine. This is a Criterion release after all. The disc is more or less flawless in all areas. Of course, due to the film’s age, the transfer isn’t as pristine and clean as a film from the last five years. But, that aside, what is here looks and sounds pretty damn good.
While it’s damaged and spotty in certain places, most of the picture is filled with fantastic detail and depth. Colour reproduction turned out really well and black levels are excellent. On the audio side, things are great. A crystal clear track with clean dialogue shines and the soundtrack springs to life wonderfully. Effects sound crisp and rich while the expected distortions are kept to a minimum.
When it comes to features, this disc outdoes itself. Here’s what’s included.
- Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth
- Marxist Poetry: The Making of The Battle of Algiers
- Five Directors
- Production Gallery
- Remembering History
- “Etats d’armes”
- The Battle of Algiers: A Case Study
- Gillo Pontecorvo’s Return to Algiers
Truthfully, this is an excellent effort in terms of special features and really, Criterion has given us everything that a fan could ever ask for. The 56 page illustrated booklet is a nice touch and makes the actual package feel all the more special. Features like Five Directors (Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh, and Oliver Stone discuss the impact of the film) and Remembering History (a documentary on the real life events that inspired the film), I found to be fascinating.
The hour long making of feature, Marxist Poetry, which looks at how the film came together, is also a remarkable feature and one that is well worth a watch for any fan of the film or filmmaking in general.
In all honesty though, you can’t go wrong with any of these features, they are all excellent and will undoubtedly please any fan of the film. There is something here for everyone.
In conclusion, I’d be hard pressed to recommend anything other than an immediate purchase for The Battle of Algiers. If you’ve already seen it and enjoyed it, then you MUST buy this. If you haven’t yet seen it, maybe give it a rental first (as the film may not be for everyone, due to it’s subject matter and visual style). That being said, at the very least, even if you don’t enjoy the film, it’s still a fantastic technical feat and a really great piece of filmmaking that any movie buff would be happy to have in his/her collection.
The 1966 classic, The Battle of Algiers, has arrived on Blu-Ray in a fantastic Criterion Collection and it's a wonderful package.