FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Legacy of Gillo Pontecorvo

by JOE ALLEN

Gillo Pontecorvo, one of the great revolutionary film directors of all time, recently passed away at the age of 86.

He is best known for two classic films about the struggle against colonialism, The Battle of Algiers (1966) and Queimada/Burn! (1969).

Born in 1919 to a wealthy Italian Jewish family, Pontecorvo grew up and came to political consciousness under Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship. In the late 1930s, he and his family members were forced to leave Italy for France after anti-Semitic laws made daily life unbearable.

Pontecorvo returned to Italy during the Second World War and became a member of the Communist Party’s underground apparatus fighting Mussolini’s fascists and Hitler’s armies in Northern Italy. His experiences would prove invaluable in the making of his future films.

While he left the Communist Party in the mid-1950s, his political sympathies remained on the left and with the world’s oppressed people. In the early 1960s, major Hollywood and British film studios were still making silly and racist homages to the British Empire, such as Zulu and Lawrence of Arabia.

He and his writing partner, Franco Solinas, struggled for years to get a major studio interested in the Algerian struggle against French colonialism. When they approached an Italian film producer with their idea, he responded, “Why do you think Italians would care about Negroes!”

Finally, with the help of the Algerian government, but with a small crew and budget, Pontecorvo created The Battle of Algiers about the 1957 general strike against French rule and the ensuing battle between the fighters of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the French army’s elite paratrooper units for control of the city.

Using a grainy, newsreel-like film technique, whole sections of the film seem like actual events rather than a movie. “I was mainly interested in showing this unstoppable process of liberation, not only in Algeria, but throughout the entire world,” Pontecorvo said in a 1999 interview.

While the film focuses on the terrorist tactics of the NLF against the French army and settlers, showing them to be products of necessity and repression, there is also an implicit criticism of such tactics. The film ends with a mass uprising that breaks French rule.

“Wars aren’t won with terrorism, neither wars nor revolutions,” said Pontecorvo. “Terrorism is a beginning but afterward all the people must act.”

Popular interest in the film was renewed after it was revealed that top Pentagon brass screened the film when the insurgency in Iraq gained momentum in the summer of 2003. The parallels between the U.S.-British occupation of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza with events documented in The Battle of Algiers are obvious.

Queimada, released as Burn! in the U.S., was Pontecorvo’s other classic film, starring Marlon Brando as Sir William Walker, an agent of the British Admiralty.

Walker is sent to the mythical Portuguese sugar colony of Queimada in the 1830s to steal the island for Britain. To do this, he must foment a slave rebellion, led by the freed Black slave Jose Dolores, while simultaneously convincing the island’s businessmen that the future is with wage labor and British protection.

While he initially succeeds and leaves Queimada smug and rich, Walker is called back 10 years later to repress a new revolutionary movement.

Queimada is a tutorial on the dynamics of historical change. On his second tour of duty, Walker once again has to tutor the island’s narrow-minded businessmen, who remind him that “he has only been gone 10 years,” on the historical drama unfolding before their very eyes.

“I want to explain,” says Walker. “Very often 10 years can reveal the contradictions of a whole century and prove our judgments wrong.” One of those judgments that was proved wrong was that the oppressed would endure their oppression.

For many people, Pontecorvo comes second only to Russian director Sergei Eisenstein in capturing the full human drama of revolution on film. It will take another era of revolutionary struggle to produce another filmmaker equal to Pontecorvo.

JOE ALLEN is a movie buff, who writes regularly for Socialist Worker and the International Socialist Review. He lives in Chicago. Email: joseph.allen4@att.net

 

 

JOE ALLEN is the author of Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
December 02, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The CIA’s Plots to Kill Castro
Paul Street
The Iron Heel at Home: Force Matters
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Timberg’s Tale: Washington Post Reporter Spreads Blacklist of Independent Journalist Sites
Andrew Levine
Must We Now Rethink the Hillary Question? Absolutely, Not
Joshua Frank
CounterPunch as Russian Propagandists: the Washington Post’s Shallow Smear
David Rosen
The Return of HUAC?
Rob Urie
Race and Class in Trump’s America
Caroline Hurley
Anatomy of a Nationalist
Ayesha Khan
A Muslim Woman’s Reflections on Trump’s Misogyny
Russell Mokhiber
Sanders Single Payer and Death by Democrat
Roger Harris
The Triumph of Trump and the Specter of Fascism
Louis Proyect
Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers
Ralph Nader
Trump and His Betraying Makeover
Dan Bacher
WSPA: The West’s Most Powerful Corporate Lobbying Group
Nile Bowie
Will Trump backpedal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
Ron Ridenour
Fidel’s Death Brings Forth Great and Sad Memories
Missy Comley Beattie
By Invitation Only
Fred Gardner
Sword of Damocles: Pot Partisans Fear Trump’s DOJ
Renee Parsons
Obama and Propornot
Dean Baker
Cash and Carrier: Trump and Pence Put on a Show
Jack Rasmus
Taming Trump: From Faux Left to Faux Right Populism
Ron Jacobs
Selling Racism—A Lesson From Pretoria
Julian Vigo
The Hijos of Buenos Aires:  When Identity is Political
Matthew Vernon Whalan
Obama’s Legacy
Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano
By Way of Prologue: On How We Arrived at the Watchtower and What We Saw from There
Aidan O'Brien
Fidel and Spain: A Tale of Right and Wrong
Carol Dansereau
Stop Groveling! How to Thwart Trump and Save the World
Kim Nicolini
Moonlight, The Movie
Evan Jones
Behind GE’s Takeover of Alstom Energy
James A Haught
White Evangelicals are Fading, Powerful, Baffling
Christopher Brauchli
Parallel Lives: Trump and Temer
Joseph Natoli
The Winds at Their Backs
Cesar Chelala
Poverty is Not Only an Ignored Word
David Swanson
75 Years of Pearl Harbor Lies
Nyla Ali Khan
When Faith is the Legacy of One’s Upbringing
Gilbert Mercier
Trump Win: Paradigm Shift or Status Quo?
Charles R. Larson
Review: Emma Jane Kirby’s “The Optician of Lampedusa”
December 01, 2016
Kenneth Surin
Life and Politics in Appalachia
David Swanson
Why Flag Burning Matters
Ray McGovern
Petraeus Redux?
John Wight
The Fierce Debate Over Castro’s Legacy
Jan Oberg
Orwell in Oslo: Nobel Institute Honors Kissinger (Again) and Brzezinski
RP Burnham
Egoism and Empathy in the Era of Neocons and Neoliberals
Blake Gentry
Fighting for Indigenous Rights: From the UN to Yaqui Territory and Standing Rock
Peter Lee
Chinese Catastrophism Collides with Trump Catastrophism
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail