Director Gillo Pontecorvo is one of the greatest figures in Italian cinema. Born Gilberto Pontecorvo in Pisa on November 19, 1919, he forged a reputation for socially-committed cinema, opposing Western colonialism and celebrating armed uprisings by the oppressed. His greatest work combined political passion with exciting and emotional film-making and a commitment to even-handedness.
The Battle of Algiers (1965) is considered his masterpiece, a model of documentary realism, even-handed in its treatment of the struggle for independence in Algeria. Rather than telling the full story of the revolt against colonial rule, the film focuses on events between 1954 and 1957, when the conflict was at its most brutal.
Its central story is that of a young Arab con artist, Ali La Pointe, and his politicization after he is thrown in jail for assaulting a pied noir, a French Algerian. There he witnesses the execution of a terrorist freedom fighter, and following his release he becomes involved with the struggle for independence from the French. Repression by the French colonial rulers is countered by bombings by the Algerian FLN guerillas, bringing ever more brutal violence from the French paratroopers send to crush the uprising. Through a campaign of torture and murder, the French manage to destroy the Algerian guerrilla movement, only to be upturned by a final people's uprising.
Although Pontecorvo was at the time a member of the Italian communist party, and supported the independence movement, the film is fair to both sides, the sophisticated yet out-of-place French quarter of Algiers, and the slums of the Casbah. Perhaps the most brilliant sequence is of Algerian women disguising themselves in French fashion and taking bombs from their homes past army checkpoints to attack the sophisticated cafes where the wealthy French expatriates socialise. The horrible effects of the bombings are shown in as much detail as the torture (of half-drowning and electrocution) inflicted on the Algerians.
In his search for naturalism, Pontecorvo preferred not to use established actors. Ali La Pointe was played by Brahim Haggiag, an illiterate farmer, and the only professional actor in the film was Jean Martin, a little-known French stage actor, who played the paratroopers' leader Colonel Matthieu. Jacef Saadi, an FLN leader, played himself.
As well as its documentary accuracy, The Battle of Algiers is also distinguished by its excitement and energy: it is a thrilling film to watch as the French close in on the Algerian freedom fighters. Pontecorvo was highly skilled at editing and the use of music. He scored the film himself, and Ennio Morricone provided the theme music. It won the Golden Lion at Venice, and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
At the time it was attacked both by the left for being too pro-French and the right for being too pro-Algerian. It was banned altogether in France for a year, and then kept off screens for a further four years when cinemas received bomb threats. However, it has lasted through time even as the memory of the conflict in Algeria fades. And it is still of relevance, as the cycle of violence it portrays is played out again and again, most recently in Israel's occupied territories.
Pontecorvo had an exciting early life. In his teens, he was an aspiring tennis player. During World War II, he fought for the Italian Resistance and as a liaison with the French Resistance. Following the liberation of Italy, he worked as a political activist, organising a strike in Turin in April 1945. He began his film career in France, having been inspired by Roberto Rossellini's Paisan. He directed a number of films in Italy through the 1950s, mostly documentaries; the best known is the drama The Wide Blue Road (1957) with Yves Montand as a fisherman who catches fish with bombs rather than nets.
He came to international attention with Kapo (1959), which was nominated for the best foreign film Oscar in 1960. Drawing on the memoirs of Primo Levi, it told the story of a Parisian girl deported to Auschwitz concentration camp. As the girl grows older and stays alive, she becomes harder and loses empathy for her fellow-prisoners. She becomes mistress to an SS officer, and a Kapo, an administrator of the other prisoners, before getting a chance for redemption.
He strove for a rough, documentary quality with this film: printing the film and rephotographing from the print it to give a rougher image. The film, as with most of his others, made use of many non-professional actors, something he had in common with many Italian filmmakers from the neo-realist tradition, such as Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Following The Battle of Algiers, his next film, Queimada! (Burn!) in 1969 was an attempt to present a similar story of anti-colonial struggle, but made with a much larger budget and Hollywood stars. It featured Marlon Brando as a British agent in the Caribbean, opposite non-actor Evaristo Marquez as a guerrilla leader. Marquez was found by Pontecorvo in rural Columbia, and the director instantly liked his rough appearance, although the studio United Artists would have preferred Sidney Poitier. Brando and Pontecorvo quarreled during the making of the film, although they later planned to make a film about Native Americans starring Brando as a pro-Native American lawyer.
The Battle of Algiers and Queimada! were big successes critically and on the art-house circuit, but he failed to follow them up. The following years saw a string of unmade projects. As well as the aborted Brando film mentioned above, in the early 1970s he tried to make a film about the life of Jesus Christ, but it came to nothing.
He returned to familiar territory with Ogro (The Tunnel) in 1979. This told the story of Basque terrorists fighting for independence from Spain, but it was far below the standard of his earlier films. Pontecorvo later explained the film's lack of focus on his ambivalence about terrorism following the murder of Italian prime minister Aldo Moro (killed by right-wing agent provocateurs but at the time blamed on the leftist Red Brigade).
In the following years, with the reputation built on the continuing fame of Battle of Algiers, he was offered jobs as a director for hire, on films including The Mission. One grandiose project that would have either been fascinating or a disaster was a planned World War I movie with Julia Roberts and Kevin Costner or Al Pacino, which he conceived in the early 1990s.
In 1993, his status as a respected figure in the film community was further cemented when he became director of the Venice Film Festival. However, he has not directed a feature film since 1979.
Missione Timiriazev 1953
Porta Portese 1954
Festa a Castelluccio 1954
Cani dietro le sbarre 1955
La grande strada azzurra (The Wide Blue Road) 1957
Pane e zolfo 1959
La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers) 1965
Queimada! (Burn!) 1969
Ogro (The Tunnel, aka Operation Ogro) 1979
L'Addio a Enrico Berlinguer 1984
I corti italiani segment of Nostalgia di protezione 1997
Udine segment of 12 registi per 12 citta 1998
Un altro mondo e possibile (Another world is possible) 2001
Gerald Peary, "Talking with Gillo Pontecorvo", http://www.geraldpeary.com/interviews/pqr/pontecorvo.html
Derek Malcolm, "Gillo Pontecorvo: The Battle of Algiers", The Guardian,
Daniel Rothbart, "The Cinema of Revolution", Article Magazine,
Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com