A Muslim country seething with discontent. A Western occupying force using strong-arm tactics to root out a terrorist army. Women with bombs in their handbags. Tanks in the streets.
Contrary to what you're thinking, this is Algiers in the mid-1950s. The film is Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 classic "The Battle of Algiers," an electrifying, ground-level re-enactment of Algeria's struggle for independence from its French masters. For years the Pentagon has screened this film to military personnel headed for insurgent hotspots -- it was shown there as recently as August -- and if you go to see the gleaming new print at the Kendall Square starting today, you'll quickly grasp why. "Battle" is cauterizing in its evenhandedness, showing the vengeful madness and the passionate reason on both sides of the conflict. Nearly four decades old, it's the first must-see movie of 2004.
Pontecorvo came up through the Italian Neo-Realism boom of the postwar years, but he was first and foremost a documentararian. Both strains serve him well in "Battle." His camera is everywhere: in the torture cells of the French Foreign Legion; in the Casbah meeting rooms of the Algerian resistance organization, the National Liberation Front (FLN); at checkpoints; on rooftops; in cafes when the bombs go off. At times you have to pinch yourself to remember that every frame of the film was staged.
The casting, too, is realistic enough to shed blood. As central figure Ali la Pointe, a rangy street hustler who becomes a committed FLN fighter, Brahim Haggiag was picked from the crowd by the director, but Saadi Yacef, as Ali's recruiter Jafar, fought in the real uprising and wrote the memoirs on which Pontecorvo and co-writer Franco Solinas based their script. French actor Jean Martin was tapped to play the army leader, Colonel Mathieu, for his resemblance to the dapper, self-aware commander of the real French forces, Jacques Massu: It took an actor to play an actor.
Violence escalates in "Battle" with a horrible tit-for-tat logic -- an execution leads to an assassination campaign against French policemen which leads to the cops bombing the Casbah which leads to the FLN bombing racetracks and airports -- and only Mathieu, a theoretician of realpolitik, is willing to articulate the hard line. "Should France stay in Algeria?" he coolly asks a hostile reporter. "If you answer yes, you must accept all consequences."
Those consequences include torture, shown here without a blink. Mathieu may be unflappable, but his men aren't, and their anger is stoked by fresh memories of losing French Indochina. Nor does "Battle" idealize the FLN. One of its leaders may tell Ali that "terrorism is useful as a stunt," but that means nothing to a French teenager killed by a bomb, and when the FLN mounts a moral cleanup of the Casbah and a group of kids subsequently hound a drunk to his death, you see the mob mentality that lurks even in the urge for freedom.
As "Battle" shows, the terrorist cells were eventually snuffed out, but mass protests several years later led to Algerian independence in 1962. The final shots of the film aren't so much a celebration of liberation as an acknowledgment of historical inevitability. The filmmakers are too fatalistic, or exhausted, to join the party.
Too much can be made of parallels with recent events in Iraq (for one thing, the French didn't go in with the stated purpose of unseating a dictator but were already there) but the chafing, mutually uncomprehending collision of Western occupiers and Muslim occupied has never been captured with such dispassionate, thrilling clarity. "The Battle of Algiers" is a thinking person's action film in which there are winners -- but no heroes.
("The Battle of Algiers"; At Kendall Square; In French and Arabic, with subtitles; ****)
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.