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Retro Rental: Excited for ‘Dark Knight Rises?’ Rent This…

Dark Knight Rises Battle of Algiers
Warner Bros./Criterion

[Each week, inspired by what's in theaters or in the news or even just by random firings of neurons, 'Retro Rental,' by film critic James Rocchi, looks at an older film on disc or download that links up to the here-and-now ...]

I know we’re all excited about ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ and while it’s nigh-impossible to draw a consensus from reviews, the verdict seems to be that it’s very good — not “The Dark Knight” great, but good. And a lot of people are talking about the politics of the film, since, as the trailers have already made clear that’s on Nolan’s mind, too. Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle purrrrrs a note of warning into Bruce Wayne’s ear that things are going to change for magnates like him. Tom Hardy’s burly bad-guy Bane poses as a populist liberator when he’s just a anarchist terrorist.

And that, along with all the action in the bustling urban streets of Gotham (Chicago and New York, mostly) that Nolan and his team shoot so well made me think back to one of my favorite films that also mixes politics and ethics and big, real urban action. Yes, it’s a ‘classic,’ but not a classic under glass like glass-eyed, stuffed, dusty taxidermy animal. It’s more a live, snarling, moving thing that claws at you and twists in your grip.

‘The Battle of Algiers’, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo,  was put out in 1966 — and, since then, has been referenced by everyone from Steven Soderbergh to Paul Thomas Anderson to Quentin Tarantino. Gary Ross, the director of ‘The Hunger Games,’ told me when I interviewed him that ‘Battle’ was his main inspiration for shooting the action in ‘The Hunger Games,’ and when you watch  you can see that plain as day. With a mix of you-are-there realism and high-octane cinematic storytelling, it’s about the fight between well-equipped but outnumbered French soldiers and rag-tag but passionate Algerian revolutionaries who want their country back. ‘Algiers’ is a nice reminder that you don’t have to have a Bat-suit in a film to have it discuss and depict big ideas through action and suspense.

Pontecorvo made his film about the Algerian war for independence not long after it was over; the fighting went from 1954-62, but  the film’s about 55-57 — when the fighting was at its worst, with Algerian guerrillas bombing cafes and French soldiers torturing captives for information. Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin) has a job to do, but can’t do it with red tape handcuffing him: “We find ourselves hindered by a conspiracy of laws and regulations that continue to operate as if Algiers were a holiday resort and not a battleground. … Therefore, it’s necessary to find an excuse to legitimize our intervention and make it possible. It’s necessary to create this for ourselves …”

His player on the opposite side — Joker to his Batman, or is it the other way around?  — is a street hustler turned into a revolutionary after being arrested in a mass roundup of the usual suspects. Ali La Pointe (Brahim Hadjadj) is a match for Mathieu, and feels no shame at having sent suicide bombers into public. When Mathieu asks him if sending a woman into the marketplace with a bomb in a basket isn’t cowardice, La Poitne snaps back: “And doesn’t it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets …”

‘The Battle of Algiers,’ in short, is nearly-perfect filmmaking that combines ideas and suspense and action, and the realism of it is astonishing. Every shot in the film was, apparently, for the movie, which unfolds as an amazing achievement on-screen. Pontecorvo cast actual ex-revolutionaries, and while the film  was commissioned by the Algerian government, it’s impressively even-handed. And if you think a movie from 1966 hardly sounds ‘relevant,’  you should know that recently, The Pentagon commissioned prints of it during the second Gulf War to show soldiers and policy-makers how, exactly, you can win a war and lose the people, and on how revolutionary ‘cells’ operate.

In a smooth move Hardy’s Bane would probably appreciate, revolutionary groups have also admitted watching ‘Battle’ for tips and its realism. When you’re done with ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ you may find you want more — another movie about the conflict between people, the conflict between ideas, that’s shot on real film but about real politics. And sure, you could just watch Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ again. But if you’re up for it,  ‘The Battle of Algiers’ will make for a surprisingly thought-provoking, entertaining, gripping double-bill to keep you enthralled and engaged with the terrible, exciting sound and spectacle of fighting in the city streets in the name of who gets to control the future of a nation from a film that’s endured and echoed for nearly half a century.

‘The Battle of Algiers’ is on Criterion Blu-ray and Hulu Plus streaming.

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