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:
May 30, 2016
Ron Jacobs
The State of the Left: Many Movements, Too Many Goals?
James Abourezk
The Intricacies of Language
Porfirio Quintano
Hillary, Honduras, and the Murder of My Friend Berta
Patrick Cockburn
Airstrikes on ISIS are Reducing Their Cities to Ruins
Uri Avnery
The Center Doesn’t Hold
Raouf Halaby
The Sailors of the USS Liberty: They, Too, Deserve to Be Honored
Rodrigue Tremblay
Barack Obama’s Legacy: What Happened?
Matt Peppe
Just the Facts: The Speech Obama Should Have Given at Hiroshima
Deborah James
Trade Pacts and Deregulation: Latest Leaks Reveal Core Problem with TISA
Michael Donnelly
Still Wavy After All These Years: Flower Geezer Turns 80
Ralph Nader
The Funny Business of Farm Credit
Paul Craig Roberts
Memorial Day and the Glorification of Past Wars
Colin Todhunter
From Albrecht to Monsanto: A System Not Run for the Public Good Can Never Serve the Public Good
Rivera Sun
White Rose Begins Leaflet Campaigns June 1942
Tom H. Hastings
Field Report from the Dick Cheney Hunting Instruction Manual
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
Stavros Mavroudeas
Blatant Hypocrisy: the Latest Late-Night Bailout of Greece
Arun Gupta
A War of All Against All
Dan Kovalik
NPR, Yemen & the Downplaying of U.S. War Crimes
Randy Blazak
Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity
Murray Dobbin
Are We Witnessing the Beginning of the End of Globalization?
Daniel Falcone
Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, an Interview with David Hilfiker
Gloria Jimenez
In Honduras, USAID Was in Bed with Berta Cáceres’ Accused Killers
Kent Paterson
The Old Braceros Fight On
Lawrence Reichard
The Seemingly Endless Indignities of Air Travel: Report from the Losing Side of Class Warfare
Peter Berllios
Bernie and Utopia
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
Indonesia’s Unnatural Mud Disaster Turns Ten
Linda Pentz Gunter
Obama in Hiroshima: Time to Say “Sorry” and “Ban the Bomb”
George Souvlis
How the West Came to Rule: an Interview with Alexander Anievas
Julian Vigo
The Government and Your i-Phone: the Latest Threat to Privacy
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail