Cited by many people, including the Pentagon as the most realistic war movie ever made, it was with no little expectation that I came to this film. To briefly sum up, it is the late 1950's, and various colonial empires across the globe are in steady decline, including that of France. In Algeria, Muslim nationalist are calling for a state of their own, free from the interference and suppression of the colonial French forces. Unfortunately, French right wingers are at the same time backing the many French settlers who have a vested interest in staying in the country. And so the scene is set for a bloody civil war.
The film initially deals with the conversion of young street hoodlum Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) to the cause of the FLN, the Algerian Liberation Front. However, from there the film broadens its scope as the FLN take the fight to the French, and the French authorities respond with equal violence. From here on in the film steadfastly refuses to back away from its subject matter, depicting the violence inflicted by both sides with equal disdain, from the effects on the local people of the FLN bombings to the draconian crackdowns instigated by the French in response to this. With the arrival of the French Foreign Legion, led by the charismatic Colonel Mathieu, played with steely hardness by Jean Martin, the battle becomes a cat and mouse game between the leaders of the FLN, and the colonel who believes that only by understanding the enemy can you defeat him (a good lesson, and one that a few people in power today could do to learn).
The film uses a shaky hand held style and coupled with its grainy black and white palate gives it an almost documentary realism (if you caught the film half way through, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in fact watching a documentary). Also, borrowing techniques from the French New Wave and Italian Neo Realism (the use of non-professional actors, using real locations) enhances the realistic feel of the film. Even the dialogue, the way people talk and react to the things going on around them feels neither staged nor awkward. With a few outstanding set pieces, including a nail bitingly tense sequence in which a group of female FLN activist plant bombs around the city, this is one of the most well crafted and well delivered history lessons I have ever seen that forces the viewer to make some very uncomfortable judgments on the subject of colonialism and terrorism. Directed with amazing skill by Italian writer-director Gillo Pontecorvo, it was banned in France for many years for fear that it could spark national unrest, it is a film that remains relevant today as it was when it was first made.