The Battle of Algiers
One of the most influential political films in history, The Battle of Algiers, by Gillo Pontecorvo, vividly re-creates a key year in the tumultuous Algerian struggle for independence from the occupying French in the 1950s. As violence escalates on both sides, children shoot soldiers at point-blank range, women plant bombs in cafés, and French soldiers resort to torture to break the will of the insurgents. Shot on the streets of Algiers in documentary style, the film is a case study in modern warfare, with its terrorist attacks and the brutal techniques used to combat them. Pontecorvo’s tour de force has astonishing relevance today.
Criterion ports over their DVD release of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers to Blu-ray, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in a 1080p/24hz transfer on the first-dual-layer disc of this 2-disc set.
Disappointingly it looks to be the same high-definition transfer that was used for the DVD edition back in 2004, which isn’t necessarily bad since the DVD’s presentation was really good at the time but there are some limitations in what we get here. The source materials still present a variety of problems due to shooting conditions and the film’s age, including marks, debris, stains, and a few scratches. Sharpness and detail is adequate and there are moments where the finer details can pop but overall I found it maybe a little soft, possibly due to the source in many cases but I feel not all. Some sharpening also looks to have been applied creating some artifacts.
Contrast appears to be a little better with cleaner blacks and nice shadow details making for easier to see darker scenes. Grain, which can get somewhat heavy during moments, at least looks a bit more natural and less like noise in comparison to its DVD counterpart.
But in the end while it is certainly cleaner all I can really say about this Blu-ray is that it is a decent and noticeable upgrade over the DVD in terms of its image but I still came out a little disappointed with it. There’s some room for improvement in both the restoration and the transfer.
There is quite a bit of action in this film compared to most of the other films Criterion puts out, The Battle of Algiers containing many shoot-outs and explosions. But unfortunately, due to the age of the film’s monaural soundtrack the lossless linear PCM track we receive comes off weak, lacking much depth or fidelity. Gun shots ring hollow and flat, and the explosions also suffer from the same problem. Ennio Morricone’s superb (and catchy) score has some surprising depth to it but voices have some edge to them, yet still manage to come out clear and audible. On the other hand I didn’t notice much in the way of noise in the background and it sounds clean in this regard.
It is what it is, though, a product of its age. Probably about all we can expect for the time being.
Criterion looks to have ported everything over from their ambitious 3-disc DVD set from 2004, breaking the supplements out in a similar fashion over 2 Blu-ray discs this time. The DVD placed the film on one disc (with the trailer and a photo gallery) then placed features about the director and the film on one disc, and then features about the history of the film or subjects related to it on another disc. Here they place the contents that were spread over the first 2 DVDs on one disc, and then the contents of the third DVD onto the second Blu-ray. (I’ll note that while all features are presented in 1080i they look to be simply upconverted from the standard-definition presentations from the DVD.)
The first disc starts with a 37-minute documentary from 1992 called Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth, which covers the director’s career and examines why he has made so few films (the reasons are apparently he either can’t get financing or if he can’t answer the question he poses to himself, “why should this film be made?”, he won’t bother making it.) It covers his early life and his political actions, and then goes into detail about how he came into film, Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan a strong influence in his becoming a filmmaker. There is of course discussion about The Battle of Algiers but there’s more on Burn! and the dramas he faced working not only in the Hollywood system, but with actor Marlon Brando as well. He talks about some other projects he worked on that never came to light, the most intriguing of which was a film about Oscar Romero that was to star Gene Hackman. In its short time it manages to offer a great primer on the director and should be viewed by anyone interested in the man and his work.
Next we get the 51-minute making-of called Marxist Poetry: The Making of The Battle of Algiers, which has been divided into 10 chapters and features interviews with Pontecorvo, biographer Irene Bignardi, producer/actor Saadi Yacef, cinematographer Marcello Gatti, composer Ennio Morricone, actor Jean Martin, editor Mario Morra, and Italian film critic Tullio Kezich. In all it’s an incredibly fascinating documentary about the film’s production despite the static talking-head feel to it, but there was enough drama which manages to keep the stories interesting. It was fascinating to learn about early versions of the film which tended to lean towards a more European view, but once Yacef, a former member of the FLN, the group depicted in the film, got involved it became what it is now, a more balanced presentation of both sides of the conflict. Everyone then goes into the details of casting, primarily unknowns, Martin possibly being the only professional actor in the film, then move on to the photography including why black and white was chosen, much to the disappointment of the financiers, and then moving on to the score and editing, which presented a number of dramas. There’s of course some discussion about the actual events and some things not depicted in the film but this is mostly about the production and sticks to that. It’s long, and again can feel fairly static despite the editing in of photos and clips, but it works and delivers an engaging account on the making of the film.
Five Directors presents 17-minutes worth of interviews with directors Julian Schnabel, Mira Nair, Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, and Steven Soderbergh, who all discuss the importance of The Battle of Algiers and the influences over their work (Soderbergh coming out and admitting that he “stole” directly from it for Traffic.) They talk about its presentations of both sides of the conflict (though all admit that the film certainly leans more to one side) and the technical achievements, this leads more to how difficult it would be to make such a film today. Nice addition by Criterion but admittedly it ends on a little bit of a depressing note as it reminds us of the current state of cinema (true back in 2004 when the interview was originally filmed but even more so now.)
The disc then presents a production gallery which presents 40 or so photos from the production with some text notes, along with posters from around the world for the film’s original release and then its American re-release. The disc concludes with the original theatrical trailer and then the Rialto re-release trailer.
The second dual-layer disc presents the remaining features.
The first feature on this disc is a 68-minute documentary made for the original DVD called Remembering History which offers a historical lesson of sorts about the conflict represented in the film, covering areas not depicted in the film, like what led up to it and what happened after where the film leaves off. Using new and archival interviews, including interviews with historians Dr. Hugh Roberts and Sir Alistair Horne, we learn about the early days of the French occupation, the class and social divide that occurred causing deep resentment within the Muslim community, and then the actual attacks and bombings that took place. Saadi Yacef also gets into more detail about the organization and what its recruits would do if they were captured and to face torture. Again, like most Criterion features it’s talking-heads primarily but it still manages to be an engaging 1+ hour history lesson for those not entirely familiar with the conflict and want to learn more about it outside of what the film represents. The feature has been divided into 10 chapters.
États d’armes is a segment from Patrick Rotman’s 2002 documentary L’ennemi intime which, using new and archival interviews, focuses on the use of torture by the French army during the battle of Algiers and explores the issues that obviously arise, and how it ultimately worked against the French government and led to the Algeria’s independence. Interviews with surviving military members show they were uneasy about the practice but that it did lead to some successes in trying to quash that FLN. Surprisingly it does present both sides of the coin but the segment is, in the end, clearly against the use of torture.
Battle of Algiers: A Case Study is a 25-minute round table discussion between ABC News’ Christopher E. Isham, former national counterterrorism coordinator Richard A. Clark, and former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism Michael A. Sheehan. They get into the film and its presentation of the subject matter and how it shows where both sides went wrong and how this can be used as lessons when dealing with terrorism. They talk about how groups like Al-Qaeda work today and the need for a political strategy when taking on the problem. It’s a little dated now (again, it was recorded for the 2004 release of the DVD) but informative none-the-less and a great, insightful addition by Criterion.
And finally Gillo Pontecorvo’s Return to Algiers is a 58-minute piece that originally aired on Italian television in 1992 shortly after the assassination of then Algerian president Mohamed Boudiaf. It sounds like the segment was originally just supposed to be a video piece with Pontecorvo revisiting Algiers 30 years after Algeria’s independence and examining the conflicts occurring there at the time, but was changed a bit to accommodate the assassination that just happened. So mixed in with Pontecorvo’s time back in Algiers, including the Casbah (where he seems to be welcome) we get an interview with the director who talks about the problem of rising Islamic fanaticism and the rising frustrations among the people who, despite the country gaining independence, have been under the rule of what was basically a dictatorship, causing a wide economic divide. Pontecorvo works hard during the interview to crush certain stereotypes and clichés that the West may have of Islam, but it’s easy to tell that while he may have been supportive of the FLN and their cause, he doesn’t seem too enamoured by the current revolutionary group. Once you get past the production’s horrendous 90’s set design and television effects (all that’s missing is the “star wipe”) it’s another great addition to the set offering where the country and the city of Algiers would be almost 30 years after its independence.
Closing off the set is the same 57-page booklet that looks to be basically the same. It again includes an essay on the film by Peter Matthews followed by an excerpt from Saadi Yacef’s book about his memories of the conflict, recalling his arrest, which is then followed by an excerpt from Yacef’s screenplay for The Battle of Algiers covering the same segment. An interview from 1973 with screenwriter Franco Solinas is next included, and then finally Arun Kapil offers 18 mini biographies for the various participants of the Battle of Algiers. There may be some minor changes to the material but overall the content looks to be the same.
Still one of Criterion’s most comprehensive editions, it offers one of the more thorough examinations of a film and its subject matter, and, miraculously, it manages to avoid a lot of repetition in its hours and hours of material. Now on Blu-ray it’s still one of Criterion’s best special editions.
One of the Criterion’s strongest releases gets an adequate if unspectacular upgrade on Blu-ray. The transfer offers a minor but noticeable improvement, but I was probably expecting a little more. Still, for those that haven’t been through the DVD, this is still Criterion’s most ambitious and thorough release I can think of. Based on that it comes with a high recommendation.