I work at a private liberal arts-based college that is composed of three different “schools”: arts & sciences, business, and education, with several departments within each school. One of the problems with this compartmentalization—quite typical though it is in academia—is that one doesn’t always have the chance to get to know and interact with colleagues in other departments. So, a few years ago, I began doing a campus-wide faculty film soirée each semester. I pick a film, write a bit about it, and then turn it over to the college administration to publicize the event, send out invitations, and order the food and wine.
On Friday, we did The Battle Of Algiers. I made some brief introductory remarks and then we watched the projected DVD. Afterwards, the group (which also included spouses, friends, etc.) adjourned to eat, drink, and chat about the film. Almost no one had seen it before, and it was fun to circulate and listen to the various pockets of conversations about the movie.
Much remarked-upon was the “even-handedness” of the film. Of course, Pontecorvo’s sympathies are clearly with the Algerians and the FLN, but the French are not caricatured, and the commanding Colonel is richly-shaded. Something I noticed this time around: kids and cops. The early terrorist attacks are sometimes carried out by kids, and they shoot cops in the back. Pontecorvo doesn’t show us the faces of the cops, and thus wards off our empathy. The accompanying music in these scenes—by Ennio Morricone and Pontecorvo himself—is sphagetti-western-flavored, with echoey electric guitars. The scenes almost look like they could belong in an action-suspense thriller, thus distancing us from the deaths. Then, the French plant a bomb in the Casbah, and dozens die in the attack. This scene is deliberately staged not as thriller but as tragedy. Strings swell as wounded or dead children are carried out of the smoky rubble—it’s a moving scene, and makes a strong play for our empathy.
But to complicate our response later, a bomb goes off at a racetrack. The angry French crowd turns and seizes a young Arab kid selling cigarettes, and a French cop puts himself in danger by jumping in and saving the kid’s life. The film is constantly complicating the simple opposition of the French and Algerians with such grace notes. And for a movie that uses, Eisenstein-like, a "collective hero", remarkable attention is paid to individual characters.
My colleagues seemed to appreciate the film and enjoy discussing it, but they made it clear to me that next semester I should perhaps think about following up The Battle Of Algiers with its opposite: an (1) American, (2) comedy, (3) in color. Animal House came up in our conversation as a possibility.