Gillo Pontecorvo: An Appreciation

by Joe Auciello / November issue of Socialist Action Newspaper

Film director Gillo Pontecorvo died in Rome on Oct 12. He was 86. His last feature film was released 27 years ago, so contemporary audiences may not be likely to recognize his name or know of his accomplishments.

Pontecorvo created only a small body of work and will be best remembered for two films: the award-winning “The Battle of Algiers,” (1965) and the lesser known but equally brilliant “Burn!” (1969).

Pontecorvo’s film achievements reflected and built upon his activities as a political activist and journalist. He joined the Italian Communist Party in 1941 and became a leader of the anti-fascist resistance in Milan. He left the CP in 1956, in protest against its organizational methods and political line—including the Soviet invasion of Hungary—but always continued to consider himself a socialist.

Pontecorvo brought stories of revolution to film. He infused narrative with radical, political content—in powerful and engaging movies that stirred his audiences. At the same time, he contributed innovations of his own, in storytelling and cinematography.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, notably Jean-Luc Godard, Pontecorvo did not attempt to revolutionize narrative itself or to create a new grammar of film. For such efforts Godard was said to be “at the forefront of the heroes of our time” (Peter Harcourt, “Six European Directors,” 1973), but today Godard’s revolutionary films look dismal and dated. By contrast, Pontecorvo’s films remain fresh and vivid.

“The Battle of Algiers” tells the story of the Algerian National Liberation Front and its bitter, brutal struggle against the occupying French army. While the Algerian side is represented from the perspective of a revolutionary militant, Ali La Pointe, the story is told in such a way that the role of protagonist in this narrative is really the Algerian people themselves, the development of their political consciousness, and their determination to fight their oppressors blow for blow.

At the same time, this film, which sides openly with the revolutionaries, treats the antagonist, the reactionary Colonel Mathieu, as a fully developed character, not as a cartoon villain.

It is a measure of Pontecorvo’s talent that he could present both sides of an irreconcilable struggle and still remain militant, anti-colonial, and pro-revolutionary. As he told an interviewer from Cineaste magazine: “I had taken a position in favor of Algerian independence. Instead of condemning the situation from the outside, however, by painting black all the action on one side, and white on the other, I tried to enter into these two logics and to see, from the inside, everything that was possible to see, all the while expressing a judgment which was historically in favor of one side and against the other.

“In ‘The Battle of Algiers,’ it is the logic of colonialism that is condemned, and not the particular individuals who put it to work” (“The Cineaste Interviews,” p. 309).

“The Battle of Algiers” is also successful, in part, for its stylistic innovations, especially in its use of photography. Pontecorvo shot in black and white, using hand-held cameras, sometimes with a telephoto lens, and processed the film in the lab in a way that achieved the appearance of newsreel footage. The resulting grainy quality lent the movie an undeniable sense of authenticity, though, in fact, no actual newsreel footage was used.

Pontecorvo’s next film, “Burn!” is also an anti-colonial, pro-revolutionary story, set this time in the 19th century on the fictional Caribbean island of Queimada.

In this story, the British send an agent, played by Marlon Brando, to help incite a slave rebellion against the Portuguese masters. The revolt is initially successful; a popular government favorable to British interests is installed, and the British spy returns home. But soon the slave-like conditions of “free” labor spark a new uprising, and the British agent returns, this time to destroy the revolutionary forces he had originally helped create.

In the short term, imperialism triumphs, but the spirit of rebellion remains, to rise again in the future.

The imperialist agent is, again, seen “from the inside,” so that he is a fully developed, complex character. In his autobiography, Marlon Brando said, “I think I did the best acting I’ve ever done in that picture…” and he may well be right.

Both “The Battle of Algiers” and “Burn!”are available on DVD. Anyone who sympathizes with the struggle of an oppressed people for their freedom will want to watch, enjoy, and learn from these films.

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