Battle of Algiers
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The famous opening title of The Battle of Algiers tells us that there was not one foot of documentary or newsreel footage used in the film. That may seem like a gimmick to a viewer unfamiliar with the film, but its necessity will be clear by the end of the movie.

Director Gillo Pontecorvo crafted a film of rare authenticity. Shooting in high-contrast black and white and working almost entirely with non-actors (including some actual members of the FLN, the Algerian resistance group), The Battle of Algiers is unique among all political and war films. And it's limited theatrical re-release and subsequent DVD release this year couldn't be more timely.

The film, about the Algerian fight against French occupation in the 1950s, has been studied by resistance groups around the world and was even screened recently at the Pentagon. Regardless of one's politics, there is no disputing that this is a powerful film. Few films can match the verisimilitude Pontecorvo captured with this film. It plays more like a historical document than just about any other narrative film I can't think of.

Indeed, The Battle of Algiers practically defines the term cinema verite. Pontecorvo himself calls his directing process the "dictatorship of truth," and it shows in the film. From the visual style to the actor's performances, Pontecorvo sets the highest possible standard and continually meets it, although it was anything but an effortless process. In some of the accompanying special features in the DVD set, actors recount being directed to repeat some scenes dozens of times, just so they'd get tired enough to really look tired.

That same fixation on truth extends to all aspects of the film--from the casting, to the locations (including actual sites of bombings), to the great Ennio Morricone's striking score--even the film stock used, the entire picture is pitch perfect. Watching it now it's hard to believe that it was made only a few years after end of the resistance.

One of the most discussed aspects of the film is which side it stands on. Clearly, Pontecorvo is more sympathetic to the FLN than to the French, but he does not glorify them or absolve them of their tactics. In perhaps the film's most famous scene, we see three women planting bombs in locations filled with French civilians. Pontecorvo goes to great lengths to show the human toll of the bombings, something that would have undoubtedly been minimized in a more hagiographic portrait of the Algerian resistance.

The Criterion Collection's director-approved three-disc set is exceptional even by Criterion standards. For starters, the film itself looks fantastic, with a stunning transfer that belies the film's age. Then there are a wealth of extras spread across two discs--one focusing mostly on Pontecorvo and the making of the film, the other on the film and history.

Disc two includes Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth, a 1992 documentary narrated by Edward Said, as well as a superb documentary on the making of the film newly produced for this DVD. Rounding out the disc is a short appreciation of the film by five directors--Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh, and Oliver Stone.

Disc three includes the new Remembering History documentary, which revisits the Algerian resistance with interviews from historians and revolutionaries. Also on the disc is Etas d'armes, a short documentary on the use of torture during the resistance, as well as The Battle of Algiers: A Case Study, a roundtable discussion on the film's relevance, and finally Gillo Pontecorvo's Return to Algiers, a self-explanatory hour-long 1992 documentary.

There is no commentary track, although I suspect that was a conscious decision on the part of Pontecorvo and Criterion (there was surely no shortage of people willing to record one). Also worth noting is the included 56-page book, which, like the documentaries, does a wonderful job of placing the film in context and serves as a fine introduction whether you're interested in the film or the actual history.

The Battle of Algiers is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new high-definition transfer that has been enhanced for widescreen televisions. This three-disc set includes several documentary special features: Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth (1992): a 37-minute documentary, narrated by literary critic Edward Said; an exclusive 51-minute documentary on the making of The Battle of Algiers, featuring new interviews with the director, cinematographer, composer, editor, actors, and film historians; Five Directors (17 Mins., 2004) featuring Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh, and Oliver Stone on the film's influence, style, and importance; Remembering History: an exclusive documentary that reconstructs the Algerian experience of the battle for independence, featuring interviews with historians and revolutionaries, including military leader Saadi Yacef; "Etats d’Armies"(2002): A 28-minute documentary featuring senior French military officers recalling the use of torture and execution ot combat the rebellion; The Battle of Algiers: A Case Study (25 mins.,2004): Richard A. Clarke, former national counterterrorism coordinator and author of Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror, discusses the film's relevence with Michael A. Sheehan, former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, in a conversation moderated by Chrisopher E. Isham, chief of investigative projects for ABC News; Gillo Pontecorvo's Return to Algiers (58 mins., 1992): the filmmaker revisits the Algerian people after three decades on independence. Additional special features: a galler of production stills and posters, theatrical and re-release trailers, and a 56-page booklet featuring exceprts from Saadi Yacef's original account of his arrest, a reprinted excerpt account of his arrest, a reprinted excerpt from the film's screenplay, a reprinted interview with co-writer Franco Solinas, a new essay by film scholar Peter Matthews, and biographical sketches on key figures in the French-Algerian War. Suggested retail price: $49.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.

Photos courtesy of the Criterion Collection.