Faces Wild: Why The Battle of Algiers Goes On
    Steve Street
The recent re-release of Gillo Pontecorvo's 1967 film The Battle of Algiers has occasioned a lot of talk. Last summer the Pentagon screened it precisely in order to initiate an "informed discussion" on the dynamics of urban terror and, in the twice-translated phrasing of an anonymous spokesperson cited in Le Monde, "the challenges the French had to face." People Christopher Hitchens in Slate calls armchair guerrillas, too—as the Black Panthers did when the movie was new—see parallels between the way this film shows the fight for Algerian independence from its colonizers and struggles in which the US is involved. Today, of course, that means Iraq.

But in the film itself, it's the faces that grab you. In the opening sequence, a torture victim tells his French interrogators where to find Ali la Pointe, an actual resistance leader whose rise from street hustler to convict to guerrilla forms the film's narrative arc. It follows a time line of revolutionary activity and counter-activity from 1954 through 1957, when revolts were finally put down, then concludes with a seemingly spontaneous flare-up in 1960 and independence in 1962, all historical events. A boldfaced title identifies the film as a "dramatic re-enactment," though it's got about as much to do with today's TV reenactments as opera does with obese women. So as to blend in while leading French troops to Ali's hiding place in the Cashbah, the city's Muslim section, the trembling informant is given a French uniform to wear, and in one of the few brushes with sentimentality in this story of terror versus torture, tears stream down his ruined face like the four rivers of France chalked on a blackboard in a story Albert Camus set in approximately the same time and place. Like Pontecorvo's, Camus's fiction distills complex conflicts: cultural, economic, political, racial, religious into facial close-ups. His language adds another dimension that creates some very different effects, but both works offer more insights into today's conflicts than military strategy or political ideals, either.

Is that a real guy? I was wondering during that opening scene, noticing the burns on his chest, until that title appeared to scream that "NOT ONE FOOT" of the film is newsreel or documentary footage. A strange disclaimer. I'm more used to its opposite, our own culture's plea, "Based on a true story" as if a story that doesn't touch us and illuminate some part of the world as we know it will somehow start to if we know it happened, as if any truth but the literal is a waste of time. But later, after I'd seen the bleeding cheek against the sidewalk outside a bombed café, chrome helmets of pompiers appearing through smoke, and the mangled leg on a boy being carried out of the rubble of an apartment building bombed in retaliation—black-and-white scenes so powerful as to seem real, especially since most of the actors are, extras and principals alike—I understood. The disclaimers like Hollywood's about the treatment of animals, though in effect it serves as a kind of challenge: What you are about to see is art, only that—but just try to dismiss it. Pontecorvo's Italian, the culture of Michelangeo, Italo Calvino, and Fellini—now his movie is competing with Cops, The Lord of the Rings, and CNN's crawl headlines. So some confusion is understandable.

Even now, though, this black-and-white film is hard to dismiss, and not just for its torture, rioting, abuse, and other carnage. After all, between the Godfather and the evening news, which of us hasn't seen worse by now? It's the faces that compel: from the luminous waiting ones of the partisans Ali holes up with in that opening scene—actually the film's climax, resumed later—to the wasted but alert ones of the unemployed young shibaab in the background of street scenes, their slouches perfect—from the blemished and dimpled face of the gap-toothed drug dealer Hacene le Blidea, laughing before Ali shoots him in a revolutionary purge of "weak spots," to the happy, reverent faces of Mahmud and Hassiba, a mole on her chin, as they're married in a secret ceremony to undermine the Colonial Authority as it restores dignity to the newlyweds, their guests, and their entire community—to the calm, careful face, alive with conviction and danger, of the character Lhadi Djafar, a resistance leader, as he explains the feints and subterfuge that "the Organization" used to contact and then test Ali on his release from prison (this one might be co-producer Yacef Saadi's the infamous revolutionary who is now in the Algerian senate; he gets third-star billing but no mention in the cast list, as if he doesn't trust the film audience any more than he ever did the French Colonial authority (police).

Faces are the heart of this film, and they betray the director's. The faces of French paratroopers don't receive equal time, except for a sneering one at a checkpoint when the Casbah is sealed with coils of razor wire and a gleeful one on a soldier riding a corrugated security door, which a tank has dragged off a shop in order to break a strike. But on Algerian faces, the camera lingers. For a later film, Burn!, Pontecorvo searched from off-Broadway to Colombia until he glimpsed a peasant on horseback who had the look he wanted for a West Indian revolutionary to play opposite Marlon Brando. United Artists had suggested Sydney Poitier, whom in fact Marquez resembles, but Pontecorvo said that, though he admired Poitier's acting, his face wasn't wild. You can't call that man's face tame, really, but even as he struck Carroll O'Connor's in the Heat of the Night it was above all controlled, and the quality that's so hard to turn away from, in Battle as in Burn!, is the opposite not of tameness but of control. In that way it's a kind of freedom, in fact—the inner freedom of people who know their worth despite what they're told—and it's so rare and inimitable that Pontecorvo stuck with the untrained Marquez through forty-one takes of one scene. Apparently, Brando was fuming.

That's movie trivia, but like these movies themselves, it might shed some light on the difference between our culture and, increasingly, the rest of the world. Consider again that Pontecorvo had to leave the developed world to find the quality he called wild. If you've traveled abroad, you know you can tell a fellow American from blocks away: a lift to the chin, a bounce to the gait, a dawning smile, habits of ease and trust, curiosity and delight. "Hi! How are ya?" In Simon Bolivar square in downtown Cairo, two men once peered at my grin as if live worms were crawling out if it, and at my own proud bidding, too. In the days after 9/11, someone speculated that our carriage abroad might change. The implication seemed to be that our particular posture came from innocence and distance from suffering. Of course, to say that Americans—or Westerners, or the comfortable—don't suffer is nonsense. Hospitals and hospices and cancer centers are filled to capacity, their waiting rooms crammed with the sufferers' suffering kin. Zen centers from Martha's Vineyard to Marin are likewise filled. But on 9/11 almost three thousand people died horrible deaths while the rest of us watched, aghast, and we've bounced back with Survivor, Joe Millionaire, and Jackass: the Movie.

Even going to the movies seems morally problematic when people in combat believe they're there to preserve that right. But while repercussions from the most shocking blow to America's self-concept ever continue to spider around the nation and the globe like chicken wire over a rock-face or cracks in the bedrock itself—pick your mixed metaphor, depending on your interpretation of measures from the Patriot Bill to the recent convictions of the Lackawanna Six, from Guantanamo Bay to the Baghdad airport where, as I write, Saddam Hussein has just been accorded P.O.W. status after almost a month in the C.I.A.'s care, while the terms of his trial continue to be debated—the American pulse, as gauged by its popular culture, has resumed. In addition to the works cited above, consider Kill Bill and Elephant, movies that, on matters from the trivial to the dire and in venues from the Cineplex to the art house, both so embrace an indirect and self-referential sensibility over any clear evocations of feeling or thought as to make a remark of Pontecorvo's sound like the gurgle of a baby on a battlefield: in response to high praise for his decades-old work he said he found it "very natural to try to tell the true sentiments of simple people."

Granted, he's not a wordsmith. Even his screenwriter, Franco Solinas, could barely approach the power of that opening scene with language: "The Algerian who has spoken is there," reads his script. "He is young with a thin face and feverish eyes."

Still: "simple people?" In our own vernacular, "How oxymoronic is that?"

Take, for instance, Daru, Albert Camus's schoolteacher protagonist in a story commonly translated as "The Guest." A literal translation of the original title would actually be "The Host." Whichever, that same vernacular might put it. But the discrepancy's interesting. Daru, like Camus himself, is a pied-noir, a Frenchman born and raised in colonial Algeria, conflicted by birth, his home a landscape not his own, and the action of the story centers on his having to take charge of a Algerian prisoner, whom he feeds and shelters for a night. So Daru is both host and a guest in the country, albeit one who won't leave; the prisoner too can be seen in both roles, depending on your emphasis and point of view: which character is more important? Which people is, the French or the Algerians? Well, which have stopped beating their wives? The questions are no good, i.e., and the discrepancy between titles seems to point to the perception of truth itself, the way that with too much fixity, too much rigidity, things can become their opposites, the simple complex, the true false. Daru takes pains throughout the story—takes angst, might be a more accurate expression, if you know your existentialists—to avoid siding with either the prisoner or the colonial gendarme who's turned him over to be led to prison and probably executed. Eventually Daru decides to set the man free, not out of compassion so much as to endorse the principle of choice, and not before a night of mulling over the issues involved and studying the man himself—especially his face. Like Pontecorvo, Camus seems to sense that the crux, if not the answer to, of human conflicts is there, in the face, though in his language other qualities appear:

"At first Daru noticed only his huge lips, fat, smooth, almost Negroid; yet his nose was straight, his eyes were dark and full of fever. The chèche revealed an obstinate forehead and, under the weathered skin now rather discolored by the cold, the whole face had a restless and rebellious look. . . ." And later, after the gendarme has left the two alone: "He had to look at this man. He looked at him, therefore, trying to imagine his face bursting with rage. He couldn't do so. He could see nothing but the dark yet shining eyes and the animal mouth." And, as the man's eating: "The thick lips opened slightly."

Do you envision the face, or do you wince at the racial details, the outright slur of "animal mouth"? Is this our—if we're white, if we're Western—fascination with Pontecovo's faces? I don't want to think so. I read Camus's work before I could fathom his ideas, when his solitary, truth-driven characters appealed to my emotional imagination, more like a James Dean poster than actual thought; I certainly wasn't aware of what leaps out at me now in those descriptions. My god, the guy's a racist! What was Camus thinking?

He was thinking about other things, of course—ideas, abstractions, like existence and justice and humanity and free will—noble-sounding vocabulary that's used also to justify war, no? Yet look where his head was, come to find out. So might it not be worth at least articulating, when both political left and right seem to take for granted a connection between colonialism and the US role in Iraq, all factors in the mix? Plenty of room for error, of course, in interpreting causes and effects, let alone motivations, across the distance of time and culture, just to name two gaps, but shouldn't we at least name race as well? Daru sets the Algerian free but can't get over the man's lips. Did the US invade Iraq simpy because of the similarity of skin tone between Saddam Hussein and Ossama bin Laden, Moamar Qaddafi, and Yassir Arafat—and its difference from Bush's and Cheney's?

No, not simply. But since when has race in America ever been a matter of coincidence?

The Battle of Algiers addresses ideas, too. Aside from its use of faces, it is meticulously constructed, its story and characters scrupulously even-handed. As Ann Hornaday wrote in The Washington Post, the film's "greatness . . . lies in its ability to embrace moral ambiguity without succumbing to it." The strike it depicts was called in July 1956 to show the UN, which had agreed to consider intervening in the unrest, that the independence movement was more than a few terrorists; a character named Ben M'Hidi explains the strategy to the untutored Ali la Pointe, almost seeming to console him for the eight-day ban on terror (as well as on commerce and even appearing in the street): "There's still a great deal to do. I hope you're not tired."

That's about it for humor, appropriately enough. Pontecorvo's too busy with serious ironies. When Ben M'Hidi is captured, then dies in his cell, a purported suicide, it's the French paratroops' commander, Col. Philippe Mathieu, who casts doubt on the official cause of death by expressing admiration for his late adversary's moral strength. But at the same press conference, he makes the case for both torture and "political will," something he says journalists can help with. His chilling logic: if the answer to Should France stay? is Yes, then the French must accept all necessary consequences, one of which is the shuddering man in the opening scene. Also chilling are similarities between that question's duality and the "with-us-or-against-us?" one posed to the world a few months ago, and the consequences we've seen since—and "political will" to Rumsfeld's "helpfulness."

Overall, though, language plays a somehow rudimentary role in the film. In the middle of the strike, a gendarme with a megaphone drones propaganda into the Cashbah, as if its residents might believe that the F.L.N. (for the french order of the initials of National Liberation Front, the prime revolutionary force) "wants you to starve"—but later, when their resolve has indeed flagged, it is shored up by a single sentence shouted from a balcony by the boy Omar, who is Ali's first contact when he's released from prison and who sticks with him to the end: "The Organization says not to be afraid, my brothers." It's another broad moment like the opening's tears, evidence of what Charles Paul Freund in Slate called the film's celebration of a "1960s revolutionary mystique" that's collapsed—too simple an emotion for the situation's complexities. In fact, Algerian resistance was comprised of several not always harmonious factions.

Another, more sharply shown dimension of resistance might be called clean living as underground weapon. In one long sequence a jeering flock of Algerian boys sets upon a drunken Algerian man in a public street. They pummel him until he falls, loosens his grasp on an iron railing, and rolls down stone steps. The moral rancor of the oppressed is no easier to see than the moral certainty of the dominant. Every side has its ugly side.

We all watched the footage over two years ago, but for many of us now the faces of terror have changed. I live in Buffalo, a mile from the Peace Bridge. The Sunday before Christmas, I drove over it into Canada and up to the Falls along the Niagara River, a route I've taken often by bicycle, past the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, new villas, a golf course, a pub with shepherd's pie above hamburgers on the menu, and a creek called Usher's that, according to a sign over it, until 1811 bore my very own name. If you cross over at the Rainbow Bridge, your first view of the Falls comes along with or even after a view of the casino, the Minolta observation tower, neon-lit hotels, Ripley's Believe It Or Not, and other horrors on Clifton Avenue, but when you drive up from the Peace Bridge you see the mist in the distance first, wondering if it's steam. You hear a sound like a train, you see the rapids, and then you see not the classic white curtain of the Falls but the Drop, the huge bite-shaped nothing where the river goes over, where what seemed a moment before so certain and predictable and enduring as to have become a cliché for life itself, a river, is suddenly air, space, absence. It's a disorienting moment, like two placid scenes mis-spliced, and the quiet shock must be akin to what awed the first people, native and settlers alike, when they realized what those lazy white coils rising in the distance actually are—a moment like terror, in fact, except for the dawning knowledge of source and purpose and evidence of death, unless you're suddenly also missing your traveling companions' birch-bark canoe. But the furious, nearly absolute power of it (only a few barrel-jumpers and the recent depressed guy from Michigan even necessitate that adverb) is the same. Even under the Peace Bridge you can feel the current's tug, boaters say.

I'd gone up to buy a snow-bubble souvenir for a relative who collects them. Back in my car with it, a Toronto station was playing some big-band version of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," so I switched to a Buffalo station and heard that Homeland Security had raised the threat level to orange. The traffic jam I'd seen at the Rainbow Bridge suddenly made sense, and I remembered a backup on the eace Bridge, too, though lines of trucks there are so common I hadn't thought twice. I made a U-turn and drove up to the Lewiston Bridge, but the situation there was the same, and what I'd intended to be an hour's trip turned into two, three, more. At one point I timed nine minutes before traffic budged. People in day-glo vests were regulating the flow miles before the border, maybe to keep the bridge itself clear. A woman in the passenger seat of a Mazda SUV in the lane next to mine was reading a book. The first time I noticed her she was reading a verso page, and the next time her lane surged she was on a recto, her absorption and pleasure evident in profile, in her smile and the angle of her head. Within sight of the border crossing I saw that every trunk was being opened. I can't open mine from inside, and when I got to the booth I told the customs agent that, so that opening my door wouldn't seem like a sudden and dangerous movement. "I don't care what you have to do," he said, and when I showed him the collapsible snow shovel I keep in my trunk, the old backpack with ice skates, the cardboard bag full of rags, the kitty litter I hadn't yet brought inside from my last trip to the grocery store, he glanced at it all and asked what I'd been doing in Canada.

"Buying a souvenir of the Falls as a Christmas gift for my sister-in-law," I said.

He stood with his shoulders hunched against the wind, a guy about my own age, his blonde hair going gray at the temples, in better shape than I was in already at that point in the season but with bad skin, acne scarred. Folds at the outside corners off his eyes made him look even more tired than he must have been. His gave me a tight smile.

"Drive careful," he said. From the lane next to mine emerged also the SUV with the reading woman. She had closed her book and was tucking it into her door pocket, laughing at something the driver had said and then settling into her seat with that composure I recognized, smiling straight ahead.

If these are anything like the faces of war you see now—along with Saddam's, in either playing-card or bearded version—go see Pontecorvo's movie, or rent it. Neither newsreel nor blockbuster (though in its time it won the Lion d'Or at Venice, the Critics' Prize at Cannes, and was nominated for three Oscars), its faces are an antidote. Who knows whether its director would have had to go to the developing world for his casting anymore—wild faces seem to be all over now, in convenience stores, at bus stops, in neighborhoods people joke about driving through—but on the street you can't stare at them. Onscreen you can take a good, long look.

SOURCES (All online. A Google.com search on the title will turn up these and other rewarding reading on The Battle of Algiers. A new 35 mm print was in big-city theaters in January, 2004; a DVD available in Italy should be here soon; meanwhile Amazon.com and others have it in VHS.):