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: firstname.lastname@example.org