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This film has experienced some form of renaissance when notoriously or famously it was screened at the Pentagon or White House or some other counter-insurgency decision-making place like that to demonstrate the failure of a strategy that is based on escalating violence. And never mind that this film is about a specific case of a specific oppression of a specific group of people in a specific country and city – it is as universal a story as you will ever get. The French occupying forces in Algeria experience the rising of a counter movement, and the leaders of this movement – a bunch of intellectuals, street crooks, housewifes and kids – start actions to get rid of the unbeloved French. A spiral of violence ensues, attacks against policemen, then civilians sipping their café au lait in the posh coffee shops or their Martinis in the fancy bars of Algiers. Both sides are without much scruples when it comes to hurting their perceived enemy, and the city erupts in death and chaos. There are not many main characters (or even “heroes”) – we get to see a bit more about the commanding officer of the French paratroopers (apparently the only main character played by a professional and experienced actor, Jean Martin), and of the illiterate street crook in the Algier’s casbah.  

Apart from being a thriller of sorts (with the permanent tension of bomb plots working out or not, or the peril of moving into a street fight in the twisted casbah alleys), and of course an allegory on how violence breeds violence, and the arrogance of leaders and occupiers, the inhumanity of all war, the questionable logic of torture … apart from all that this is a beautiful piece of film art: shot in black and white, with an eerie score highlighting scenes of danger or preparatory tension, a mix of local instruments, wailing voices and cracking gunshots. It is one of those films that dares to entertain you while it educates you, and that stunned me with its very deliberate absence of position in a conflict that only consisted of extreme positions. Why did it take me so long to see it??

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