The Man Who Directed The Battle of Algiers: navigating the worlds of Gillo Pontecorvo

The Italian director has never been more relevant. Yet why do his films -with one exception- remain unseen?

Ears are burning: Pontecorvo takes some feedback from Marlon Brando on set of Burn! (in 1968)

The first time I saw The Battle of Algiers (1966) I thought it was a documentary. Not like a Michael Moore film or Channel 4 News -my main non-fiction reference points at age 15- but the feeling that I was bearing witness to events unfolding in real time: messy, confusing, invigorating. There weren’t characters, not in the conventional sense of backstory and emotional engagement; but rather figures like Ali, a leader in the Algerian independence movement the FLN, or the suave Colonel Philippe sent to quell the rebellion, are ciphers for a broader struggle. Instead of a straightforward narrative we observer a series of trigger moments that flare between 1954–57 as attack is followed by counterattack, on each side shocking not just for the brutality but also because we are not privy to the calculations and planning that build up to the violence.

It was so different to other films about conflicts and politics and struggle. I was struck by how the camera was like a live presence in those winding Casbah streets, which you come to know almost intimately throughout the film. It felt like a purer form of a style that I’d been seeing a lot of at the time in films by Paul Greengrass and Steven Soderbergh, visceral cinema that makes your teeth hurt. I suddenly got that it might be more than just shaky cinematography, that films committed to telling the stories of real struggle couldn’t be tidy and comfortable. When I’d later see the films of Roberto Rossellini and Francesco Rosi I could place Battle in that neo-realist continuum, which would stretch beyond to Costa-Gavras, John Cassavetes, Chris Marker and Peter Watkins. All these were filmmakers whose work I’d come to devour by the cylinder. Yet the director of The Battle of Algiers remained a mystery. Until last month (May 2020) I had seen more film directed by Madonna than I had Gillo Pontecorvo.

This oversight might not be surprising. Pontecorvo only directed two more films after Battle, having made just two prior to it- none of which had anywhere near the cultural impact of his 1966 film. Only two of them, Kapo (1960) and Burn! (1969), were ever shown in the UK and US, while his last film, 1979’s Ogro died on its Italian release and has been rarely seen since. Having started out in journalism and documentaries Pontecorvo returned to factual storytelling after Ogro, making a handful of short docs for Italian television, including a section of the official film for the 1990 World Cup hosted by Italy. When asked about his non-prolific output, Pontecorvo spoke of his unwillingness to work on projects that didn’t resonate with him. In an interview with Roger Ebert he quipped that between Kapo and Battle he and his producer turned down 33 scripts, “including three we wrote ourselves, but after we wrote them, we didn’t like them anymore.”

I have long been fascinated by filmmakers who are known for One Great Work. Their success, often early in their career, can give a lopsided view of their output as a whole and stack the parameters for what is valued against further experimentation. The archetypal case of Orson Welles as a director who failed to do another Citizen Kane shows what happens when complication of vision is pursued over replication of glory. Pontecorvo turns out to be another interesting case. Battle was a phenomenon- as a New York Times review from 1967 was at pains to state, using the word “extraordinary” five times throughout its copy. The first extraordinary aspect about the picture, the writer remarks, is the very fact that, a year after winning top prizes at Venice and London, the film was to open the New York Film Festival before finally getting its US release. By the time Pontecorvo received his Oscar nominations it was 1968. It’s amazing to think how long the lifecycle of a hit film was -staggered across multiple festivals and rolled out worldwide over 2 years- compared to the run festival darlings receive today. Notably, this crucial moment in the 60s -from Vietnam protests of ’66-‘67 to May ’68- Battle rode a political wave that made it almost impervious to dissenting opinion, of which there was much among the French critics.

Kapò (1960): filming the unfilmable

An infamous tracking shot: Emmanuelle Riva in Kapò (1960)

For many of Battle’s champions, Pontecorvo is an exciting new voice in cinema. Few mention his previous work, Kapò. An Academy Award nominee (Best Foreign Film, 1961), and only the second film to be set in a concentration camp (and first about the holocaust to be made by a Jewish director) Kapò’s acclaim was startlingly short-lived, such that by ’67 it had all but dropped out of the annals of cinema. From the vantage of 2020 Kapò holds up as much more than just a curiosity piece and in many ways it’s startlingly ahead of its time.

Pontecorvo himself fled the rising tide of antisemitism in fascist Italy in 1938, settling in Paris but making occasional trips to Milan as part of the underground communist resistance. The film’s personal resonance to Pontecorvo is clear- and it is how he combines this anger with daring political points about personal responsibility in the face of atrocity that makes Kapò ripe for rediscovery.

Susan Strasberg as Edith/Nicole in Kapò (1960)

The film sees 14 year old Jewish girl Edith (played by Susan Strasberg, daughter of Actors’ Studio founders Lee and Paula) who in the opening scene is picked up off the streets of Paris. While being processed she manages to assume the identity of a dead non-Jewish prisoner and slip into a group of common felons destined for a women’s labour camp- but not before seeing her parents marched off to the gas chambers. Bereft and worried about her chances Edith takes an opportunity that promises to lighten her load- engage in an act of collaboration that includes prostituting herself to the gestapo guards and reporting on her fellow inmates in exchange for extra food and other privileges.

Although the ethics of survival is a familiar theme of wartime narratives, the focus on female stories is unusual. By honing in on one of the most powerless persons in wartime, a young Jewish woman, Pontecorvo and his co-writer Franco Solinas intensify the dilemma. The transformation of Edith from a timid, shaved head girl to long-haired, sexualised young woman, adopting the name Nicole, is reminiscent of the sequence in Battle where the three female FLN fighters exchange their headscarves for sultry perms and mini-skirts in order to glide through Casbah checkpoint undetected. In each instance women use their bodies to extract advantage from the enemy, an act that speaks to the limited resources available to women in wartime.

An FLN fighter charms a checkpoint guard in The Battle of Algiers

Neither instances are passive. The Algerian women have to keep calm to ensure their bombs are detonated in sync. One of the women is stopped by a checkpoint policeman; her eyes flare up in a momentary lapse of terror only to relax into shy flirtation as he only asks her if she fancies going to the beach with him later. There’s a similar tightly-wound composure in Strasberg’s performance. We’re aware of a girl using her newfound sexuality as a tool; she is mannered and empty as Nicole. There is much that is problematic, indeed implausible, about the depiction of a 14 year old girl actively choosing to become a sex toy for her prison guards. But for Pontecorvo and Solinas this is a necessary conceit for the political purpose of the film and Edith’s ultimate rejection of her collaborator status. It’s a complicated story of victimhood and one that has more in common with recent holocaust films like Son of Saul than the more precise accounts of the 50s/60s such as Night and Fog.

That Kapò fell through the cracks of the early 60s isn’t surprising. With the nouvelle vague ushering in new forms of cinema, Pontecorvo’s visual style, which makes use of close ups and tracking shots, was deemed heavy handed by the Cahiers de Cinema critics. Director-critic Jacques Rivette famously pointed to a forward tracking shot that follows a moment where Edith’s fellow inmate Teresa (Emmanuelle Riva) commits suicide by hurling herself onto an electrified fence. The shot, which frames the lifeless body in a monumental pose, was “worthy of the most profound contempt”.

Although a diatribe Rivette’s critique of Kapò does pin point how Pontecorvo’s cinema -in particular his use of realism- is very different to that of the French new wavers. Where Godard and Truffaut underline the artificial nature of film to reach a greater authenticity (the jump cut being the most archetypal feature) Pontecorvo’s realism -which in Kapò blends newsreel footage with staged material that is made to look like grainy news stock- was about tricking the audience into thinking they’re watching something real. This is as true for Battle, where all of the footage is staged. Yet rather than using verisimilitude as a gimmick, Pontecorvo’s aim is to use the fabric of reality to create images that transcend the newsreel, that stimulate emotion and provoke action.

The final shot of Battle has the camera sweeping across the crowd of protestors streaming down the Casbah with banners and chants. It’s so tumultuous and vital you wouldn’t know it’s a re-enactment until the camera pans across faces in close up and settles on a woman who is a force of nature. She is pushed back by police but each time powers on, and like Delacroix’s lady liberty she waves a flag of the nation (just not a French one!). It’s a beautifully framed tableau that takes us beyond the moment and becomes an icon for all freedom movements. Pontecorvo is working to a similar end with his framing of Riva’s electrified body, using the tools of cinema to fashion the imagery of resistance. Pontecorvo’s Kinema -true to the word’s Greek etymology- is about more than just looking, it aims to move you further.

Although Kapò’s moment in the sun was a fleeting one, it’s afterlife would be felt in a film Pontecorvo did not make- one of the many in a career of false starts and abandoned projects. The original script for Kapò had a more extensive prelude depicting the life of Edith and her family in wartime Paris, which drew on Pontecorvo’s experience as a Jew in the city and witnessing first-hand the embedded antisemitism that made France an active enabler of the holocaust. It was in Paris, Pontecorvo says, that he came to terms with his Jewishness which in turn triggered his engagement with radical politics. Pontecorvo was determined to return to this moment, and along with Franco Solinas developed the treatment for an idea about a Parisian art collector who becomes paranoid that his identity is being stolen from him by a Jewish man who shares his name. In order to convince the zealous authorities of his non-Jewish credentials the collector pursues this imposter only to see his own life become further entangled with that of his double. The scenario reworked the classic doppelgänger narrative into a story of a nation’s complicity in genocide, and reversed the ideas of identity and responsibility Kapò explored in Edith’s role play as Nicole.

Alain Delon seeing double in Mr Klein (1976)

Mr Klein (1976) would ultimately be directed by Joseph Losey with Franco Solinas having the sole writing credit. Pontecorvo pulled out when the French backers insisted the main part go to Alain Delon. Perhaps feeling scarred by grappling with the galactic ego of Marlon Brando in Burn!, Delon was too big a star for Pontecorvo. A pity, because the French actor gives the best performance of his career in the role, bringing surprising psychological nuance to a character who exploits the desperation of Jews forced to sell precious artefacts only to see himself become a victim of existential theft. Mr Klein is very much a Losey film. As in The Servant and The Go-Between he proves masterful in lacing the genteel bourgeois interiors with sinister undercurrents, although here as elsewhere in Losey’s work it feels like atmosphere and location are front loaded to the expense of narrative coherence. Pontecorvo’s Mr Klein would have been a different beast- not least as the Italian held up clarity of storytelling as a necessity of political filmmaking. Yet there are distinctively Pontecorvian moments to be gleaned, such as the film’s striking opening of a woman stripped bare and being invasively examined by a doctor for Jewish traits. There’s a brutal realism to the way Losey captures the procedure, drawing on Nazi films that treated Jewish bodies like animal cadavers, which in turn take us to the dehumanising tortures inflicted on the rebels in Battle of Algiers.

The (non-)experience of Mr Klein had at least one significant impact on Pontecorvo’s career. Franco Solinas, with whom he had collaborated on all of his films, was no longer a friend and writer partner. The effects of this absence would be felt in the only film he made after this bruising experience, Ogro and, perhaps more significantly, on his decision to walk away from narrative filmmaking altogether.

Burn! (1969): a masterpiece nobody wanted

Marlon Brando and Evaristo Márquez in Burn! (1969)

The battle in The Battle of Algiers is won by the French colonial forces but the ultimate victory lies with the Algerians who continued the war for independence. While seemingly going back in time to the nineteenth century Burn! is the logical next chapter. It’s such a compelling film that to say it’s a representation of the colonial dialectic sounds like an attempt to bludgeon drama with discourse. Battle, while loosely inspired by the writings of theorist Frantz Fanon, only addressed the struggle between colonizers and the colonised, leaving out how the historical trauma is replicated by the colonial subjects across the social strata. In a remarkable feat of cinema as philosophy in action, Burn! explores in two parts what freedom means once it is obtained and how exploitation and violence are reconstituted in a postcolonial environment. It is Pontecorvo’s masterpiece- yet rather than securing his place as the great political filmmaker of our age, the film was released in a butchered version, dumped by the studio and virtually ended the director’s career.

Drawing on the nineteenth century experience of Haiti and Jamaica, Pontecorvo and his co-writer Franco Solinas create the fictional Queimada, meaning ‘burnt’ in Portuguese as a reference to how the island’s colonists used a scorched earth strategy to quell an indigenous rebellion three hundred years prior. Having wiped out most of its natives, the Portuguese imported African slaves to work the sugar cane fields. Beginning in 1840, the film sees Sir William Walker (Marlon Brando) arrive in the port of Queimada wearing a white linen suit, the trademark garb of oblivious exploitation from Heart of Darkness through to the man from Delmote flogging tinned fruit. Walker is an agent provocateur sent by the British admiralty to foment unrest. He recruits a lowly bag-handler José Dolores (Evaristo Márquez) for a mission to rob the capital’s bank. Walker senses in Dolores an anger that, filled with revolutionary zeal, could be profoundly dangerous- but also useful. Dolores’s robbery is successful and he becomes a hero among the slave population, leaving the colonial government spooked.

Walker is one of the most charismatic performances of Brando’s career (the actor wrote in his memoir that he did “some of my best acting in Burn!”). With the air of a cult leader, Walker is someone who commands attention and silences rooms. While concerns grow about a slave uprising, Walker meets with a group of white settler and creole plantationists to plot a coup (see clip below). He persuades them that their future does not lie with colonial rule but free trade with Britain. By analogy he asks what would they rather, a wife who is expensive to maintain and grows old, or a prostitute whose on-demand pleasures are without commitment? Thus is the argument for abolishing slavery. “But what are my interests in the matter, and who am I?”, Walker asks as if this weren’t painstakingly obvious. It’s tempting to see this moment prefiguring Daniel Day-Lewis’s “I’m an Oil Man” speech in There Will Be Blood; like Daniel Plainview Walker’s rhetoric trades in a mixture of faux matter of factness and blood-thirsty wit.

The coup goes ahead, led by creole aristocrat Teddy Sanchez (Renato Salvatori) whom Walker has literally to hold in place as he fires the shot that kills the Portuguese governor. With independence declared, Dolores is persuaded to lay down arms and come to the table. Yet ten years on, there’s something’s rotten in the Republic of Queimada. President Sanchez was soon persuaded to sign a 99 year contract with the British Royal Sugar Company giving them exclusive access of the island’s main resource, rendering the company a neo-colonial power. For the workers in the cane fields the exploitation has continued- no matter how much Sanchez, now an ineffectual puppet, extolls the company’s beneficence of “one hospital and the fifty miles of road”. With José Dolores stoking armed resistance among the black population, Walker is brought back to Queimada, this time not to stir rebellion but to quash it.

What may have set alarm bells ringing at United Artists -the studio banking on a repeat of Battle of Algiers’s runway success- is that Burn! doesn’t look like other period films (Peter Watkins’s Culloden perhaps comes closest). From the opening shots of bodies of slave cargo piled high in the port of Queimada, the style that Pontecorvo developed in Battle is immediately felt. Throughout, camera movement and choreography are conjoined to create an urgent and immersive effect. Nor does it sound like anything else with Ennio Morricone providing his most out-there(and underrated) score- a blend of afro-futurist jazz and marching anthem, the kind that might have been played at anti-war marches in the 60s. Brando’s Walker himself wouldn’t look out of place among the beat poets or at Woodstock. There’s more than a touch of Dylan in his silk cravat and jaunty hat. It’s tempting to read in this sartorial flourish a reference to the CIA’s long history of using the imagery of counterculture to infiltrate radical groups.

Burnin’ in the Wind: Bob Dylan as inspiration for Walker?

What is an account of British imperialism in the nineteenth century is also a meditation on American interventions in the twentieth. As Walker razes the island in pursuit of Dolores, ransacking villages and burning sugar cane fields, the images of destruction echo those that were coming back from Vietnam on the nightly news. Pontecorvo’s choice to shoot in colour magnifies this- the terrifying orange of the fires that gobbles up the island’s scrubland and hillsides is as vivid as napalm in the jungle. When Walker justifies his strategy there is a Domino theory logic not dissimilar to American’s anti-communist interventions in the far east- the clampdown, although devastating for all, is necessary for setting an example that dissuades other colonies from taking resources into their own hands. That to do so involves setting fire to the island like the Portuguese colonists did centuries before is an irony not lost on Walker. The methods for securing control are always the same.

In happier times: Pontecorvo and Brando

At the height of the anti-war movement in 1969–70 was this too close to the bone for United Artists? The studio had already been burnt, so to speak, following a public backlash to reports that the film would address Spanish colonialism. General Franco said he would ban not just this film but the Spanish releases of all films by United Artists if they persisted with this storyline- such was the fear of the director who made Battle of the Algiers! Pontecorvo buckled to the pressure- given the film was already over budget thanks to the erratic comings and goings of it star, the director had limited bargaining power with the studio. Queimada was thus recolonised as Portuguese. (Pontecorvo would get his own back of sorts on the General by making his next film about the assassination of Franco’s deputy.) In the event, United gave the film the flimsiest of releases in 1970. They would rather bury it than court further controversy. In the year when the Best Picture Oscar went to war hero hagiography Patton, the stars did not align for a parable on the evils of American foreign policy.

The weakest aspect of Burn! is the treatment of Dolores, which is all the more surprising considering Battle set the archetype for the cinema of the oppressed. Despite being the leader of the uprising Dolores is a largely passive agent in the action, and accounts of Pontecorvo’s struggle to direct Evaristo Márquez possibly have something to bear on this. The publicity to Burn! made much of the fact that Márquez was a Colombian goat herder who had never even seen a film when he was discovered. Pontecorvo seemed to be imitating Walker by sensing a raw factor in Márquez that he could extract (or plunder?), in a similar manner to how his largely non-professional cast lent an authenticity to Battle. Yet squaring off against an actor like Brando is entirely different to asking the Algerian cast, many of whom who had fought for independence, to recreate moments of recent legend and notoriety.

According to Pontecorvo Márquez struggled to take direction and patience was running thin until DoP Marcello Gatti found that he could get what they needed through shooting Márquez from an overhead angle (see clip). Gatti was a master of filming the space within crowds and setting off stillness against motion, and often captures Márquez in soft focus flanked by his bustling infantry. They are powerful visual moments but you can’t help feeling Márquez’s image is being appropriated in a way that portraits of Che Guevara and Malcolm X were made into posters for the walls of middle class students. Instead of giving Dolores the chance to articulate the demands of the oppressed he is a largely silent cypher for the perpetually wretched of the earth, to borrow Fanon’s phrase. It would be for other filmmakers to tell this story, such as the great Mauritian director Med Hondo whose playful satires show the damage wreaked by colonialism on the West Indies. He acknowledge his debt to Pontecorvo in the best way an artist can- by bringing a sharper focus to a shared vision.

A pin-up revolutionary : Evaristo Márquez in Burn

For the purposes of Burn! Dolores is a character that exists inside Walker’s head. His choice of Dolores is seemingly intuitive, where everything else he does is a calculated decision on behalf of others. There is a glint in his eye when he is reunited with Dolores on his return to Queimada. From Brando’s deep brow how can we not read something sexually predatory into his pursuit of the rebel? All of this is present in Brando’s portrayal, as is the timelessness of Walker’s character, like he’s a force who operates throughout history lending his particular skillset to the latest imperial power on the block. But how long can he go on before he goes native? In lots of ways Walker feels like he is on the cusp of becoming Colonel Kurtz.

If Burn! is a parable for American adventurism there is also perhaps a lesson for Pontecorvo’s former collaborators in the Algerian liberation movement, the FLN. This was the organisation that commissioned the definitive account of the country’s fight for independence which became, of course, The Battle of Algiers. Although ostensibly even-handed in its depiction of violence by both sides of the conflict, there were dissenting voices, not least the hostile French press, who pointed out the problem of claiming objectivity when the film was so reliant on the support of one of the involved sides and even included a cameo from the FLN’s leader, Yacef Saadi. Not all of this criticism was nationalist bristling, as the film did omit instances of the FLN’s brutal behaviour towards other Algerians, which included castration of informants. Pontecorvo was not going to bite the hand that fed him. Yet throughout he embeds subtle suggestions that the Algerian freedom fighters risk replicating the cruelties of their oppressors. A disturbing moment depicting the FLN’s clampdown on alcohol shows an elderly boozer being chased through the Casbah streets and beaten to the ground. This scene finds a mirror image later in the treatment of another elderly man falsely assumed to be involved in an attack. Like the earlier man he is chased through the streets- but this time his taunters are the colonizers heckling from their elegant apartment blocks in the French quarter.

By the time Battle was first screened at Venice in 1966 the Democratic Republic of Algeria had already overthrown its first leader and its second, Houari Boumédiène was becoming increasingly reliant on the military to bolster support. Although sympathetic to the young country’s cause Pontecorvo was concerned about the creep of authoritarian tendencies not dissimilar to those seen under French occupation. Burn! comes as a veiled yet vital warning that the fight to maintain freedom is far harder than the battle to win it.

Ogro (1979): a reverse shot Battle

The great Gian Maria Volontè as Izarra, flanked (L to R) by Eusebio Poncela, José Sacristán and Saverio Marconi

Politically engaged cinema came of age in the 70s. In France Costa-Gavras produced a string of films -Z, State of Siege, The Confession- that looked like thrillers but where the gut wrenching tension comes not from physical threats but ideological war-games, and we’re all in on it whether we like it or not. Like Burn! these films oscillate between the allegorical and the immediate, and while being committed to realistic portrayals their purpose isn’t just to document injustices but to stir anger in the heart of audiences. Francisco Rossi (The Mettei Affair, Illustrious Bodies) and Elio Petri (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) explored through heightened drama the entrenched nature of corruption across Italian society, an arena Pontecorvo was always conspicuous by his absence. In Nixon’s US the age of the paranoia gave some the most unflinching and cynical portraits of a nation that Hollywood has ever allowed. Pontecorvo would only make one more film after Burn!, 1979’s Ogro, a work that seems at once to chime with the dispirit of the age and jar with the director’s own back catalogue. A flawed work in many ways, it is nevertheless a fascinating addition to the cinema of resistance.

On the surface this story of the Basque struggle for independence told through the activity of a separatist cell is an obvious fit for the director of The Battle of Algiers. The ogre of the title is Luis Carrero Blanco, Franco’s right hand man and mastermind behind the brutal crackdown on Basque culture. He is the target for ETA , in a plan that begins in 1973 as a kidnap operation.A group of four separatists travel to Madrid where they plan to abduct Blanco while he attends church, part of his daily routine. With the camera frequently adopting character viewpoints -more noticeably so than in Pontecorvo’s other films- it’s as if the viewer is one of the gang, made complicit in their painstaking operation by the film’s singular perspective. Morricone, ever reliable for a rousing tune, provides a score reminiscent of the snare drum march of Battle with its repetitive rise and falls. As with this previous film drama is found as much in the processes and methods through which acts of violence are internally sanctioned and orchestrated as in the rationale of freedom that underpins them.

Yet ETA is not the FLN and Bilbao is no Casbah. The campaign of the Basque separatists was as much bound up in attacking the fascist rule of Franco as it was an expression of self-determination. Although the claim for autonomy goes back to the 15th century and is articulated in cultural and linguistic distinction, the push for independence was a relatively recent, post-civil war demand in response to the Francoist suppression of regional identities in favour of a strong nationalist structure. The questions that Ogro raises are more inward facing than Battle. We are not show the repression of the Spanish state towards the Basque people to the same degree as the French forces towards the FLN in Battle. Indeed the titular ogre has only one spoken word in the film, ‘amen’ on receiving communion. Instead, the focus for Pontecorvo is on the divisions that emerge between the separatists on the use of violence in the pursuit of freedom.

Eusebio Poncela as Txabi

As in Battle, Ogro deploys a dual timeframe, beginning closer to the present and then working back. Starting after the death of Franco in 1975 the film begins in a context in which the ETA leadership have come to the negotiating table with the new government. Among the hard-line separatists is Txabi (a wan face Eusebio Poncela), a former priest for whom the ceasefire is a betrayal. It is through his memory that we are brought back to the earlier moment in Madrid and are shown divisions that were already growing between himself and more moderate ETA members such as the cell leader Izarra. (Izarra is played by Gian Maria Volontè, an icon of Italian political cinema known for playing radical hotheads who often echoed his own outspokenly communist views. His casting, conspicuous anyway as an Italian playing a Basque nationalist, is a deliberate red herring by Pontecorvo, off-set the seemingly meek Txabi.) When Blanco is promoted to Prime Minister his security detail is enhanced. While Izarra suggests they abandon their plans and return to Bilbao, Txabi insists that they change tack to an assassination plot. ETA high command approves and the men proceed to dig a tunnel underneath the road Blanco’s car passes as it leaves church. Lined with explosives, they succeed in blowing the Admiral sky-high.

Herein lies the total difference in tone with Battle. Where the 1967 film ended with a defeat for the rebels only to look forward to the greater victory that was to come, Ogro reverses the dynamic by bookending the successful killing of Blanco with Txabi’s fate as a solitary agitator in post-Franco Spain. Despite pleas from his wife Amaiur (Angela Molina) and Izarra to stand down Txabi persists with armed struggle, and is fatally wounded when attacking a policeman. Despite the seemingly conscious mirroring of Battle, this sombre coda was a late addition in response to the assassination of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades which occurred shortly before the film went into production in 1978. As Txabi’s miserable end shows, violence is not a solution in democracy.

In all of Pontecorvo’s films the main character dies. Edith sacrifices herself so that her fellow prisoners can escape; Ali La Pointe is taken out by the French forces but his spirit lives in the revolution; even Walker’s death by knifing in the spot where he first met Dolores has cathartic justice to it that signals a turning tide. In Txabi’s death Pontecorvo is signalling the end of one kind of resistance- yet with the focus on the bitter and unrepentant fighter we’re left uncertain as to what will take its place. In the lamenting final scene at Txabi’s hospital bed the music shifts from Morricone’s marching score to a choral prelude as if gesturing towards a hymn for peace. Izarra expresses hope for a future without violence but in this bleak context the sentiment feels loaded more by regret than optimism. Could the director of The Battle of Algiers really be signing off with the thought that all we need to do is try to get along with one another?

The organ music puts us in mind of the film’s religious context. Txabi was a man of the cloth- a backstory common to many of the fighters recruited by ETA from Basque seminaries. As the only of Pontecorvo’s films to explicitly deal with religion -a big omission for Battle given that the FLN in part defined themselves as an Islamic movement- it a tempting to read a theological dogmatism to Txabi’s zeal, in contrast to the malleable radicalism of Izarra. More interestingly, the film places Txabi’s faith -one that drives him so far from the institution of religion that he plans a murder of someone who is leaving a church- in the context of a broader study of what it means to be uprooted. Much of the film takes place not in the homeland but in Madrid- the heart of the other. Marcello Gatti shoots with wide angles to emphasise the alienating sensation of the city on the Basque band of brothers. In contrast with the stark primary colours of Burn! Ogro is a film of muted pastels and greys.

There is a moment when Txabi is crossing one the city’s wide boulevards and he sees a coach full of jubilant Real Madrid fans. He lingers, as if jealous of that sense of belonging that can be celebrated without fear or challenge. Later Txabi breaks cover in an effort to recruit support for their mission from a labour organiser he meets at an illegal strike. Although the Spanish union man is wary of aligning with a Basque cause they have a shared language of hatred for fascism and the empowerment of the worker that transcends the nationalistic boundaries of separatism. Yet with the death of Franco a shared monster is lost. For Izarra this means finding a way to belong within a newly democratised Spanish state, while for Txabi the fight takes a solitary turn.

Pontecorvo later conceded he had felt forced by the circumstances of Moro’s murder into contradictory positions, giving the film a disjoined feel. While I don’t disagree Ogro does contain the clearest expression of a concern that recurs throughout all of Pontecorvo’s films. Living for cause can change a person: how lowly street kids and bag handlers, a traumatised Jewish girl and a meek catholic priest can through circumstance be transformed into something mighty, and in turn change the world around them.

A Coda: what about a love story with Kevin Costner and Julia Roberts…?

An unnerving image from the publicity for Ogro, showing a larger than life Pontecorvo hovering over the streets of Madrid

Ogro was Pontecorvo’s last film but he never stopped developing ideas for cinema- and if anything his imagination expanded in ways that his existing filmography could not have necessarily anticipated. There are some fascinating what ifs. A life of Jesus was to be more politics than passion, seeing the rabble rouser of Nazareth as a champion of the dispossessed. The release of Jesus Christ Superstar put his backers off, judging that audiences preferred musicals to Marxism (why either/or?). Then there was the offer from Brando -much to the surprise of Pontecorvo- for a film about the battle of wounded knee that saw the massacre of hundreds of native Americans. Pontecorvo spent months developing it, part of which involved living on a reservation in South Dakota. Yet the project eventually fell apart when Colombia Pictures learned that Brando had signed over control of the film, including profits, to the South Dakota reservation.

Financing was a perennial issue yet some of the ill-fated projects he mentions in interviews sound wholly commercial. He attempted to attract Kevin Costner (“he has a clean face”) and Julia Roberts (“she was great in Flatliners!”) with a love story set in North Italy during the first world war. That it came to nothing shows that by the 90s Pontecorvo was regarded as an unknown quantity, too risky to take a bet on and without champions on the inside like Brando. To his credit Pontecorvo never comes across as bitter in these interviews. He was keen to stress that there was always more to his life than making movies. Yet he maintained an active interest in the state of contemporary cinema- not least in his unusual decision to act as director of the Venice Film Festival from 1992 to 1996, a period when it was very much giving Cannes a run for its money.

I was not wrong to see in the films of Greengrass and Soderbergh the mark of Gillo- both directors have spoken of the profound affect The Battle of Algiers has had on their work. Yet watching the other films in Pontecorvo’s oeuvre I’ve come to see so much more at stake in his cinematic imagination. The intellectualism of Burn! and Ogro is difficult to map onto current American cinema, although Oliver Stone’s chronicles of US political history such as JFK and Nixon certainly owe a debt. Perhaps closer in ambition is something like Olivier Assayas’s Carlos (2010), a series of films about the Venezuelan terrorist that follows the interplay of revolutionary causes and the movement of capital over a broad sweep of history and territories. It also doesn’t seem a stretch to see the influence of Ogro at work in Steve McQueen’s Widows (2019), a heist film that elegantly unpicks the nexus of criminality and politics while also pulling off a sting operation that is both precise and thrilling. The work of Palestinian filmmaker and poet Annemarie Jacir is infused with Pontecorvo, not least the wonderful When I Saw You, a story of people being formed by a place and a time, how the intimate is political and the political intimate.

watch, write about: cinema, politics, books. I'm rather underrated. Also

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store