The re-release of Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers couldn't come at a more crucial time. Shot in stark black and white and employing a pseudo-documentary style that was widely imitated, this political classic from 1966 is a startlingly intimate portrait of Algerian nationalists who, from 1954 to 1962, sought to end 130 years of oppressive French rule by any means necessary -- including such grimly familiar methods as the assassination of police officers and bombs planted in cafes and airline offices.
Technically, Algiers may be raw and elemental, but Pontecorvo addresses with great care the tragic ambiguities that ruled the battle between last-ditch European colonialism and terrorist revolt. The film's impoverished heroes, darting through the bewildering mazes of the city's Arab quarter, are portrayed as freedom-starved and self-sacrificial. But the Italian filmmaker also takes pains to show his ostensible villain, a French army colonel called Mathieu, as an honorable man who oversees his country's doomed mission with grace and bravery. In the end, France cannot solve the puzzle of Arab political will any more than it could prevail at Dien Bien Phu, and four decades later, the film remains loaded with essential lessons in the conduct of foreign policy. If the powers-that-be at the Pentagon and the White House have never seen this extraordinary political drama, they'd do well to screen it soon. As a cautionary tale, it might give them chills.
The Battle of Algiers, in a new print, opens Friday, March 26, at the Mayan Theatre, 110 Broadway. For information and showtimes, call 303-352-1992.