Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo
United Artists

At 84, the Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo is being rediscovered by Americans. Pentagon officials, think-tank experts, journalists, and movie critics all agree that if you want to understand what is happening in Iraq and elsewhere in the post-9/11 world you have to see Pontecorvo’s 1965 film The Battle of Algiers. The trailer for a re-release promises that “the most explosive film of the ’60s is the most important film of 2004.” The media across the Islamic Arab world have endorsed that promise, praised the film, and celebrated its new life in the United States. An editorial on Al Jazeera proclaimed the film “as relevant, compelling, intense, honest, and striking today as it was when it was first released.”

When I reviewed The Battle of Algiers in these pages (February/March 2003), I emphasized how its impact had changed over time. In 1965 Pauline Kael saw only Marxist propaganda, an invidious film that made audiences sympathize with the message that violence—even against women and children—was justified in the war of liberation against the French. Pauline Kael was not wrong, but she perhaps failed to appreciate the breadth of Pontecorvo’s poetic imagination. What audiences see now are men and women who are willing to kill and die for Islam in a war against Western domination; although the Battle of Algiers may have been precipitated by the FLN’s urban guerilla violence, the revolution against the French was not achieved by a Marxist transformation but by the solidarity of the people of the Kasbah, who had been mobilized by France’s ruthless campaign to exterminate the insurgents. I do not know what lessons the Pentagon took from their much-publicized screenings. If the film teaches anything today it is the folly of Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And if Pontecorvo’s script is prophetic, America will win battles but lose the peace, provoke more terrorism, and further unite the Islamic world against the United States.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film’s reception in 2004 is that at a time when orientalists and occidentalists distrust any outsider who claims to speak for the group, both sides see the truth in the picture of Arab culture and Islamic identity painted by Pontecorvo—a European and a Jew.

One has to wonder what Gillo Pontecorvo thinks about his current American revival and our eagerness to find lessons in his films. Pontecorvo remains a dedicated man of the left, one of three famous brothers (ten siblings in all) from a large Italian Jewish family in Pisa. All three suffered under the anti-Semitic restrictions of Mussolini’s regime and fled Italy. Bruno, a protégé of Enrico Fermi, was a world-class physicist whose work contributed to the making of the atom bomb. He defected to the Soviet Union in 1950. Guido, one of Italy’s leading geneticists, escaped to Britain, where, ironically, he was interned as an enemy alien. He eventually became a professor, then the head of the genetics department at Glasgow University and a leader in his field. Gillo, the youngest of the three, was a leader of the Milan Resistance during the Second World War and also helped to organize a network of communists against fascism, which he described as the cancer of humanity. Like many in his generation he believed that communism was its only cure. After the war he worked as a functionary in the Italian Communist Party.

When the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956, Pontecorvo resigned from the party but did not abandon Marxist politics. He brought his political commitment and his many talents—photography, journalism and music composition—to filmmaking. The Italian neo-realism of Rossellini inspired him. His goal as a director was to be three parts Rosselini and one part Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. In his third film, The Battle of Algiers, he succeeded.

In his next, Queimada (1969), translated as Burn! in the American release, he would attempt to dig deeper into Europe’s destructive colonial history. The Princeton historian Natalie Zemon Davis recognizes how much of this film, which Pontecorvo sets on the imaginary island of Queimada, alludes to actual historical events “from Brazil, Saint-Domingue, Jamaica, Cuba, and elsewhere in the Carribean.” One of Pontecorvo’s most appreciative and thoughtful critics, Davis describes Pontecorvo’s project in her Slaves on Screenas a “fictional parable of linked historical transitions from slave regime to free labor; from old imperial colony to independent nation dominated by foreign capital.” Pontecorvo’s costumes and other details establish an authentic link with the African cultures and religions (voodoo and Islam) that helped establish the solidarity of actual slave revolutions.

Although the film is set in the 19th century, the plot of Queimada, which means “burnt,” depends upon events meant to have taken place in the 16th century, during Portugal’s occupation of an island in the Antilles. (This historical fiction is based on the activities of 16th-century Spanish colonialists in the Caribbean.) Unable to control the Amerindian inhabitants of Queimada, the Portuguese suppressed riots by burning the entire island to the ground. They later returned to the island, bringing African slaves to work at the profitable sugar plantations they were establishing there. In the film, a British agent provocateur named William Walker instigates a slave revolution that drives the occupying government out, thereby creating an independent Queimada, whose sugar production British merchants will control. The freed slaves thus become field workers dominated by a mulatto bourgeoisie until they rise again, only to be put down again, this time by British troops. Queimada enters a new servitude under the emerging capital markets of the neo-colonial era.

After the success of The Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo was able to cast Marlon Brando as the star of his film. That may have been his most significant mistake. Pontecorvo never recanted his opinion that Brando was the greatest film actor ever, but he would later describe the man as a little crazy. Both men were leftists and perfectionists in their own ways, and by the time Queimada was completed they despised each other. Brando was a method actor who had learned to find his characters within his own increasingly tortured psyche. Pontecorvo was a neo-realist whose casting decisions were based almost entirely on actors’ faces and physical presence. He had selected all of the actors in The Battle of Algiersthis way except for the one who played the commander of the French paratroopers—the character with the politically important lines.

Pontecorvo took the same approach in Queimada. Brando was the only professional actor and had all the important lines as William Walker. To play the leader of the revolt, Pontecorvo found Evaristo Marquez in the back country of Colombia while searching for a forest he could burn in his movie. Marquez spoke no English, had never seen a film, and could not learn cues. But Marquez, as one critic noted, looked like a mahogany saint. One can only imagine Brando’s frustration with this wooden actor who required hundreds of takes, although Brando did all he could for Marquez, even making faces off camera for him to imitate. The relationship between the two men—an enactment of Hegel’s struggle between master and slave—is the psychological and narrative center of the film. It is the emotional equivalent of the film’s love story—yet it fails.

The day William Walker arrives in Queimada he begins his search for a slave who might lead a revolt against the white masters. In one of the most graphic and believable film depictions of the enslavement of Africans, a large procession of half-naked men, women, and children in chains are herded through the square by guards as Brando watches. This is historical atrocity made visible. Despite the movie’s flaws, this scene reflects the stunning collaboration between Pontecorvo and Ennio Morricone, whose music for Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns is well known to American moviegoers. In Queimada Morricone combines African rhythms with Gregorian chants, creating an original and inspired score. And Pontecorvo, a serious student of Bach who had learned from Eisenstein that a crowd could be a character in film, makes masses of people move across his screen to the rhythms he hears in his head. Nowhere in film is the surging pageant of humanity more compellingly portrayed.

The porter and future general Jose Dolores, played by Marquez, has carried Walker’s bags from his ship and is beaten to the ground by a guard as he tries to give food to an exhausted woman. The frame freezes as the enraged mahogany saint instinctively clutches a rock. That look is enough for Walker to test this slave further. He beats, challenges, and humiliates the black man and, encountering no resistance, offers an apology and money. At that politesse the slave finally attacks. Brando easily subdues him, but now they have something to talk about. The master will lead the slave step by step on the path to violence, revenge, and revolution.

Although Brando plays the part of the master brilliantly, something is wrong, and it is not just Marquez’s bad acting. Why is the slave of Pontecorvo’s political parable unable to conceive his own rebellion as did Toussaint L’Ouverture in what was then Santo Domingo—an example actually cited in the film? There is a patronizing psychological assumption in Queimada that did not appear in The Battle of Algiers. Ali La Pointe knew he hated the French and was not in awe of them; he only had to learn from the FLN how to transform his hatred into purposeful violence. But in Queimada the slave’s hatred can only arise through the British master.

Walker exploits the greed of Dolores and a few of his friends and makes them complicit in robbing the local bank. Then he tells the authorities where he has sent the thieves to hide. He reaches the village with guns before the soldiers arrive and teaches the slaves how to shoot. After killing the soldiers, Jose Dolores holds his gun up to the sky in triumph (Pontecorvo inappropriately has him ululate like the people of the Kasbah in The Battle of Algiers). When Walker warns that more soldiers will come and that this time they will show no mercy to the villagers, Dolores must decide whether to run for his life or stand and defend his people.

Despite Marquez’s limitations we sense a leader being born. General Dolores will go on to become a seasoned guerilla campaigner—the slave revolution begins. But lest there be any mistake about how it happened, Walker says, “If I told you, Jose, to start a revolution, you wouldn’t have understood. To rob a bank, yes, that was possible. First you learn to kill to defend yourself, then to defend others, and the rest came by itself.” The last sentence is Frantz Fanon’s credo of black political consciousness transformed through violence, but the message in the film only arises through the manipulation of the white man using violence for his own imperial ends. While the slave general fights in the back country, Walker has also improbably mobilized the Queimada bourgeoisie, who, in a conspiracy with blacks in the city, have prepared to overthrow the imperial government. Under the cover of a celebration the blacks of the city don African costumes and paint their faces white (ironically enacting Fanon’s famous title, Black Faces White Masks) and the uprising begins.

With Walker steadying his hand, the bourgeois leader Teddy Sanchez assassinates the king’s governor. Queimada is free. The scene of the triumphant general returning to the city with his army and the worshipful women and children swarming to greet them is nothing less than magnificent. The mahogany saint, now a general on a white horse, is an unforgettable image of empowerment. But who will rule the island, the black general or Sanchez? Once again Pontecorvo’s narrative works on the ignorance of the slaves. The general, who cannot read and has no understanding of what a constitution would mean, can only veto the suggestions put forward by the bourgeoisie for the new government. The film suggests he has lost patience with establishing the rule of law and will return with his troops and lead a massacre. In one of the most portentous lines of the film Walker warns him that he cannot learn the secrets of the white man’s civilization overnight. Who will teach your children? Who will cure your sick? Who will transact your commerce? Those questions weigh on the general’s mind: he does not trust the white man’s civilization, but can his people survive without it? In his film General Dolores decides to relinquish his power and his guns to the teachers, doctors, and businessmen. Had he not, Walker was prepared to assassinate him. As Brando prepares to leave Queimada, Jose Dolores appears to carry his friend’s bags. They toast each other and their friendship and, when Dolores asks what he will do next, Walker smiles (if he does not smirk) and says that her majesty’s government is sending him to Indochina.

Unlike the actor who had all the ideological lines in The Battle of Algiers, Brando is a star and a phenomenon. Although he plays his role brilliantly, the Brando “phenomenon” seems out of place, even ridiculous at times, among the crowds of ordinary human beings surging across the screen. Pontecorvo’s casting sabotaged his film.

There are other failures: the plot is bewilderingly complicated, condensed, and foreshortened. I have so far described only the first book of this two-book epic. In the second Walker returns ten years later to put down a new black revolution led by the general. He is chosen for this task because of his friendship with Jose Dolores: will he again convince the general to be reasonable and lay down his arms? This time Jose Dolores will not be coopted. He spits in Walker’s face. The former slave now has nothing to lose and will fight to the death. Walker knows that makes him and every other guerilla fighter much more dangerous than any ordinary soldier. He brings in British troops with artillery, adopts the burn tactics of the Spanish, and destroys villages as Americans did in Vietnam. Jose Dolores and his soldiers are hunted down by dogs. In the final confrontation between the two men, Walker wants to save the life of his friend and cannot understand his decision to die; the general, now noble enough to be a martyr for his people’s liberation, tells the black soldier who guards him that freedom is not something you can be given; you have to take it yourself. Pontecorvo leaves us with the feeling that the only avenue open to the wretched of the earth is violent liberation fueled by anger. His final scene shows us black workers gazing into the middle distance, their faces filled with hatred.

The Marxism Pauline Kael objected to in The Battle of Algiers is marked indelibly on this film as well. This is Marxist political history seen through Fanon’s lens of racism. And since it was being made during the Vietnam War there are also allusions to that American misadventure. Indeed, Pontecorvo’s political-historical ambition proves to be more than a feature film can contain and more than his artistic imagination could coherently express.Queimada is a flawed masterpiece that confused audiences and marked the end of Pontecorvo’s significant contributions to film.

There were failures in the conception and execution of Queimada, but there was worse to come in the editing and final production of the film. Pontecorvo had made a pact with the devil Hollywood. United Artists had earlier offended the Spanish government and its dictator Francisco Franco, who then banned one of its movies, to great financial loss. The risk-averse studio insisted that Pontecorvo fictionalize his history and turn Spain into Portugal. Instead of the Spanish word “quemada,” the Portuguese “queimada” was used for the name of the island and the title of the film. The studio executives also decided that “burnt” would have no resonance for American audiences. They renamed the film Burn!, crudely calculating that the rallying cry “Burn, Baby, Burn!” in American urban riots of that time made it salient.

After doctoring Pontecorvo’s film, United Artists decided it was not worth the expense involved in a subsidized distribution and dumped it in a few theaters. Pontecorvo was beaten, but he never conceded defeat. He continued to plan films after Queimada, and anticipating Mel Gibson, he spent years thinking about a film on the life of Christ. There were other great projects started but never finished—one he did complete was a quasi-documentary called The Tunnel, about the assassination by Basque terrorists of Franco’s hand-picked successor, Admiral Carrero Blanco. Pontecorvo still has many admirers among contemporary directors but none who seem to have the heart or the mind to take on the great political issues of our world in the way he did in his two great films of the 1960s.

Originally published in the April/May 2004 issue of Boston Review.