Gillo Pontecorvo, the Italian director of The Battle of Algiers, died last week. Despite the fact his last film came out 27 years ago, the tributes paid have been enormous.
To understand his films you have to know that Pontecorvo’s early life was to influence much of his art.
He was born into a wealthy textile family in Pisa and he was destined to have a comfortable future until fascist dictator Benito Mussolini passed his “racial laws” in 1938.
Mussolini was apeing his ally Adolf Hitler. He banned Jews from many walks of public life. Like many Jewish families the Pontecorvos could see the writing on the wall, and, still a teenager, Gillo went into exile in Paris.
Although he had been influenced by anti-fascism at university he was still fairly apolitical. In Paris he earned a living by taking part in tennis tournaments. However his elder brother Bruno, a world famous physicist, was already a committed communist. Gillo got to know the leaders of the Italian Communist Party in Paris.
He also mixed with the artist Pablo Picasso, the composer Igor Stravinsky and the writer Jean-Paul Sartre. Crucially, he also met people working in cinema.
But his life was disrupted again in 1940 when the Nazis invaded France. The Pontecorvo brothers just got out of Paris in time, escaping to the south of France. Gillo settled for a while in St Tropez, giving tennis lessons and working as a deep sea fisherman.
By now he had joined the Italian Communist Party. He decided to move back to Italy, which had been invaded and occupied by the Nazis.
As a member of the resistance and a Jew he risked death. Adopting the codename “Barnaba”, he was active in Milan and ended up commanding a partisan brigade in Piedmont.
His first big break in cinema was as an actor in The Sun Still Rises. This was one of the first films released in liberated Italy, and was financed by ANPI, the national partisans’ association.
But it was the neo-realist film Paisà that convinced Pontecorvo to become a director – after watching it he went out and bought a 16mm camera.
Using his Communist contacts he started to produce documentaries, such as Bread and Sulphur in 1956, a film about the working conditions of sulphur miners commissioned by the local unions.
Kapò, his second film, was his big breakthrough in world cinema, and was a candidate for an Oscar.
Pontecorvo presented a harrowing account of life in a concentration camp, using the grainy black and white style he then used in his masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers. This is the story of the Algerians’ struggle for independence against French colonialism.
The Battle of Algiers is a film at the top of many film critic’s list of all-time greats. It’s not for nothing that it has been shown dozens of times by the Stop the War Coalition in recent years.
Pontecorvo never renounced the anti-imperialist politics at the core of the film. He insisted that the film also has to work as cinema:
“It doesn’t teach you how to make a revolution but how to make a film. It doesn’t teach you how to lead a war or a revolt, but how to make cinema. Action always works in cinema. I think films can have very political themes, but you can’t bore people. This is a film that is tense in every single minute.”
But it isn’t only the left that has been forced to react to the film’s power. Three years ago a special screening was held for senior staff in George Bush’s White House to help them understand the resistance in Iraq.
Pontecorvo told me, “I don’t think they showed it because they thought the details were identical to Iraq, but because the overall atmosphere is very similar. Establishment figures will never like this film because it shows that when people unite they are strong.”
His next film, Queimada (also known as Burn!), starred Marlon Brando and was another film about an anti-colonial struggle, this time dealing with a slave rebellion in the Caribbean in the early 1800s. Pontecorvo wasn’t fully happy with the final cut. Warner Brothers meddled with the final version and didn’t distribute it well.
By the 1970s many of the certainties of Pontecorvo’s youth had evaporated. National liberation struggles had sometimes led to grotesque Third World dictatorships, and Communist Parties around the world had become fully integrated into the system.
Ogro, his last full-length film, dealt with the assassination of the Spanish dictaor General Franco’s deputy in fascist Spain by Basque separatists.
While it was easy to show the brutality of a dictatorship, events in his native Italy marred Pontecorvo’s vision.
The Red Brigades, a small left wing terrorist group, were active in Italy and Pontecorvo was at pains not to be acccused of supporting “terrorists”. The film was still interesting, but was less inspiring than his earlier work.
Despite not making another film Pontecorvo never left the cinema. In 1986 he set up a major prize for young screenwriters, and for much of the 1990s was president of the Venice Film Festival.
The recent emergence of the anti-capitalist movement met with Pontecorvo’s approval. He said, “I’m very sympathetic towards it, as it is moving towards change and progress.”
He worked with 32 other Italian directors to film the documentary Another World is Possible, which chronicled the protests against the G8 summit of 2001 in Genoa.
He was often asked why he made so few films, and frequently responded, “Because I’ve said all I have to say.”
In just the Battle of Algiers he said more than many prolific directors say in a lifetime. Incredibly, a film made 40 years ago is still essential viewing today, cinematically and politically.
To read Tom Behan’s 2004 interview with Gillo Pontecorvo from Socialist Worker go to ‘My film shows what can happen when people unite’