Released in 1966, The Battle of Algiers is a war film centered around the heroic struggle of the Algerian community against the repressive and barbaric rule of the French colonial government. Through the course of this post, I will illustrate how it is not only the dehumanizing political policies imposed by the French colonialists that ostracize the Algerian natives but also the way the city acts as a scaffolding for this strategic exclusion. This exclusion is mirrored through the way the people of the Casbah are belittled because of their cultural differences and the stringent political policies that restrict their mobility. Furthermore, it is also echoed through the power imbalance established by the unequal distribution of economic resources. To further cement my argument about how the city contributes to the otherizing of the Algerian community, I have chosen the scene of the checkpoint (29:32) and my analysis will stretch towards the French party scene wherein the Casbah is bombed (35:03). I shall be delving into how the various filmatic techniques and mise en scene contribute to a nuanced understanding of the themes embedded within the film.
In the opening sequence (29:32) where the restrictions and checkpoints are first executed in the city, the camera appears to be moving horizontally. We encounter the dismal gazes of the Algerian people tilted sideways, almost as if the camera is harassing them, hinting at their displeasure with all the external forces surveilling their movements. The camera pans out, lending us an insight into the larger perspective, showcasing how the collective consciousness of the Algerian community is impacted by French injustices. Later, the camera operates in a chaotic manner as we are shown close ups of the Algerian faces, highlighting how they are consumed by a shared political crisis that also influences people individually. The music follows an ominous, tentative pattern, alerting us that the atrocities of the French government have worsened overtime. The visual symbol of the barbed wires has an instant jarring effect since they partially conceal the Algerian women and children from our line of vision, which is emblematic of how the subaltern communities have quite literally been enshrouded from the viewer’s eyes. Furthermore, the constant drone of the radio commentator’s voice generates a sense of urgency and tension, complementing the background visuals in which Algerian people are being interrogated and inspected for weaponry at the checkpoints. This scene is particularly hard hitting since it embodies the binary between accessibility/ inclusivity versus inaccessibility/ exclusivity. Whereas we find a certain flippancy and casualness in the step of French people since their mobility is not limited, a deep sense of paranoia and insecurity reflects in the Algerians’ walk. As a French couple maneuvers through the city with ease, Algerian men are physically weighed down by the burden of colonialism, which is mirrored through their distressed postures.
In the scene that follows, the camera appears to be carried in a somewhat journalistic way, symbolizing how we as the viewers are eyewitnesses and documentors of the historical atrocities being unfolded. We hear car screeches and suddenly, the view of the camera seems to be conducted from the frame of a car as the closed-up shots of French people’s faces directly confront and address us, their fingers wagging and pointing towards the Algerian native, giving the implication that we (the audience) are the designated executioners of the Algerians. These counter shots lend the sequence a sense of claustrophobia, setting the scene for how entrapped and confined the Algerian man who finds himself in the French neighborhood feels. Moreover, the French people also appear to be spatially elevated since they are on a higher platform (the balconies) as compared to the Algerian man who is on the road, accentuating how the cityscapes exclude and isolate the subaltern. Disturbed by the racist slurs hurled at him, the Algerian man flees outside the French neighborhood. However, since the roads are not as familiar to him as the Casbah streets, he is rendered excluded and a misfit. His posture and gait emanate awkwardness, which is emblematic of how urban spaces alienate and otherize certain individuals.
Later on, we are introduced to the gentle lull of jazz music, which is a signature of the ease and comfort typically found at a French gathering. This music inculcates an atmosphere of relaxation and tranquility, emphasizing the privileges enjoyed by the colonizers. However, this music later stands in sharp contrast with the loud, overpowering, and almost corrosive quality of the bomb implanted by the French officers in the Casbah. The aural impact of the exploding bomb almost stings the viewer’s ears after the soothing balm embodied by the jazz music at the French gathering. The dichotomous ‘music of the night’ further enunciates the binary existing between the Algerians and French, whereby the latter enjoy the social privileges bestowed upon them through colonial exploits whereas the former become victims of a massacre. Additionally, Pontecorvo hints toward the bomb explosion by utilizing foreboding and ominous music, which both makes the viewer feel uneasy and sets the tone for the action that is about to take place.
Another technique employed by the director is that of chiaroscuro-the blending and contrast of black against white or dark against light. The camera movement transitions from the darkness and shadows in the nooks and crannies of the Casbah to the French neighborhood that basks in the light of European Enlightenment. This creates a striking visual contrast between the flamboyance and lavishness of the lifestyle enjoyed by the French bourgeoisie versus the subjugated Algerian community. Moreover, the black and white color palette pervasive throughout the film is symptomatic of the disparities surrounding society. While planting the bomb in the Casbah, the French officer is extinguished by darkness, which renders him a nefarious character. The movement of the camera also becomes shaky and unstable during this sequence, which delivers a disorienting effect, reminding the viewer about the banality of the situation.