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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Gillo Pontecorvo, le réalisateur de la Bataille d’Alger n’est plus

by Dominique Widemann

Gillo Pontecorvo, director of The Battle of Algiers has died

Translated Saturday 21 October 2006, by Ann Drummond

Obituary. The Italian director leaves behind a cinematic body of work in the service of truth. We shall miss his political activism, his sense of humour and his modesty.

Gillo Pontecorvo represents all that is best in Italy and the cinema. A communist journalist with a degree in chemistry, he was a press correspondent in Paris, where he worked as an assistant to the director Yves Allégret and the film critic Joris Ivens. He then went on to become assistant director to another communist, Francesco Maselli, and to Mario Monnicelli, while all the time trying his own hand at directing. Born in Pisa in 1919, Gillo Pontecorvo began his film career in 1955 with Giovanna, an episode in the film La rosa dei venti which was never released as it was partly financed by the German Democratic Republic. It was the story of four women, filmed by four directors from four countries. The Soviets scuppered the project because they did not like the episode by Guerassimov. A few decades later, Pontecorvo took delight in having preserved a copy of his work in spite of everything. Following this tale of the occupation by women of a small textile factory in central Italy, he threw himself into directing La Grande Strada Azzurra (The Wide Blue Road) starring Yves Montand, Alida Valli and Francesco Rabal, the story of a poor fisherman on the Dalmatian coast. Although the film won the Best Director award at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Pontecorvo later felt it was “rather mediocre”. He maintained that the feeling and pursuit of language, which were so important to his work, did not reach their stylistic realization until Kapo, made in 1959. Gathering prizes at every festival it entered, the film tells the story of a young Jewish girl who is sent to a concentration camp, and becomes an assistant to the Nazis.

Pontecorvo is given carte blanche

Basking in the glow of success at that time, Pontecorvo could have made a film on any subject he chose. One project was particularly close to his heart – to make a film about colonialism. Together with the first-rate screenwriter Franco Solinas, he wrote a story entitled Paras, which is set in Italy and then Algeria. Scared off by the OAS, the production company pulled out of the project. The Algerian government then suggested to Pontecorvo and Solinas that they make a film about the Algerian liberation. The filmmaker agreed on condition that they gave him carte blanche. This was to be The Battle of Algiers. Yacef Saadi, who was one of the leaders of the Algerian resistance and the political head of the FLN in the Algiers region, plays himself. With the exception of the Colonel Mathieu character, played by Jean Martin, all the actors in the film are non-professionals. Pontecorvo and Solinas devoted themselves to essential preparatory work in both Algeria and France, where they met high-ranking soldiers to get their side of the story. The script was written in two months, and filming took place with the help of many Algerians who were keen to participate in a film about them. Pontecorvo, who attached such importance to music that he dreamed of being a composer, took responsibility for one part of the film score and left most of it to a young contemporary composer, Ennio Morricone. The realistic quality of the film, which is meant to look like actual newsreels, is worked out in detail, right down to the exact choice of film stock for its granularity. The effect is striking. Finished in time for entry to the Venice Film Festival in 1966, the film picked up the Golden Lion award there and went on to collect many more accolades. The release in France was planned shortly afterwards but it was not to be. In the light of what was referred to by those in power and the media at that time, and for a long time thereafter, as “the events” of Algeria, the film was not given a classification until 1970. Some cinemas courageously put it in their programmes. Actual or anticipated demonstrations by the extreme right made sure that showings of the film were banned because of the “disturbances to public order” it would cause. On 4 June our comrade François Maurin wrote in the columns of l’Humanité “Is the OAS to be allowed to dictate our law?”, then on 5 June, “Are we to give in to the fascists?”, followed on 6 June by “The Battle of Algiers – a grown-up film for a grown-up audience”. We had to wait until 1971 for the film to obtain a normal release. It was re-released for the first time in 1981, and then it appeared in cinemas once again in 2004 after a screening in the Cannes Classics section of the Film Festival. A new audience was able to discover this masterpiece of cinema.

“The Dictatorship of Truth”

Gillo Pontecorvo, who modestly claimed that his whole career consisted of six films, did however direct l’Adieu à Enrico Berlinguer in 1984, a short made by a collective. In 1989, there was Douze Réalisateurs pour douze films; in 1997, Nostalgia di protezione, an episode in I Corti italiani; then another collective, radical film made about the Genoa counter-summit, Un autre monde est possible in 2001; and Florence, notre demain, a similar tale about the European Social Forum in 2003. We might also add that the success of The Battle of Algiers allowed Pontecorvo to direct Marlon Brando in Queimada in 1969, a film about the slave revolt in the Caribbean in 1845. He was also the director of the Venice Film Festival from 1992 to 1995, and founded the World Writers Union in 1993. Always friendly, warm, eloquent and good humoured, Gillo Pontecorvo confided in our journal in 2004 in a long interview with Jean Roy (see the issues of 22 and 23 May 2004). The filmmaker reiterated at that point his faith in “the dictatorship of truth”. Working for this truth, his duty was to create all the stories that were within his remarkable capabilities.

Article appeared in L’Humanité on 14 October 2006.


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