Gillo Pontecorvo’s best known film, Battle of Algiers, may be set in French-occupied Algeria, and the characters sure enough speak French (and Arabic), but the film remains the absolute apotheosis of Italian Neo-Realism. Shot amidst the daily life on the streets of the Kasbah on grainy low-contrast 16mm film with a consistently hand-held camera and featuring amateurs in starring roles, Battle proved so convincingly Neo-Realist that it features an on-screen disclaimer asserting that no documentary footage appears in the film. Adding to the realist air is Pontecorvo’s refusal to take a moral position; the torturing French paratroopers and bomb-toting, café-obliterating Algerian housewives are all one to him. He’s depicting a struggle, showing us the historical wheel as it turns, and his dispassion (though he’s kinda rooting for the Algerians) makes Battle timeless in a way that more overt agit-prop could never be.
It’s also the most prescient, accurate, and detailed film ever made on anti-colonial insurgency. We all know the Pentagon screened the film last year in Iraq. The question is why? It certainly couldn’t have cheered them up. Pontecorvo’s insights are tough and, as history has demonstrated, irrefutable: 1) Insurgency turns to terrorism to make up for its lack of a formally trained and equipped army. 2) The colonialist power is forced to match its opponent in barbarity—kidnappings, torture, state-sanctioned murder—to have any chance of holding on. 3) As a result, the colonial power pays a moral cost that likely outweighs any tactical/political benefits. And 4) eventually, no matter what, the insurgency prevails.
These conclusions set the context for Pontecorvo’s next film, Burn!
Battle of Algiers deals with the outcome of hundreds of years of colonial oppression. Burn!, set in the 1840s Caribbean, addresses the roots. Like Battle, Burn! (originally titled: Queimada) is a tragedy of historical and personal inevitability. Once again, Pontecorvo makes his loyalties (barely) known, but stands back to let the wheel turn. With an odd calm, he presents one atrocity after another. Some are physical, some moral, some emotional. Each, however horrible, is presented as the inevitable collision of entrenched culture and the new paradigm arriving, either via the barrel of a gun or thanks to someone’s pernicious self-interest (or, you know, both). Yet Pontecorvo remains a teacher, not a preacher. Burn! hews to the Neo-Realist aesthetic: show the world as it is, let the audience sort it out.
The screenplay offers two men as incarnations of irreconcilable historical forces. Marlon Brando plays William Walker, an English intelligence agent sent to a Portuguese-controlled Caribbean island to foment a native revolution. His revolution’s goal is to displace the Portuguese monopoly and turn the island into a British trading zone. Once he convinces the former and current slaves that such a revolution is possible, however, they develop goals of their own.
Pontecorvo nails the hard truths. Burn! is a quietly bleak, unflinching presentation of slavery, post-slavery racial hatreds, the role of race in political power and the colonial manipulation of all of the above. Pontecorvo takes on these themes so clearly and directly—while keeping them secondary to the drama of the narrative—that Burn! becomes a lesson in how few other films ever address them at all.
The island is known as Queimada ("burnt" in Portuguese) because the Portuguese set it on fire it to quell an indigenous rebellion. Having thus killed off all the native inhabitants, they imported African slaves to work their cane fields. In the opening sequence, we see a small glaringly white off-shore key—a dumping ground for the bodies of slaves who died on the voyage from Africa. With purely visual storytelling, Pontecorvo sets the scene: everything on the island that pretends to be progress is built on the bones of dead slaves. (The original screenplay cast the island and its overlords as Spanish. But the producers objected, citing the size of the potential Spanish market and the certain banning of the picture. The Portuguese, a much smaller audience all told, were shoved into the villains’ role.)
Playing a charismatic, illiterate cane-cutter—whom Brando incites to lead the revolution—is Evaristo Márquez, a charismatic, illiterate cane-cutter whom Pontecorvo found in Columbia, where most of the film was shot. Promotional materials insist that not only had Márquez never acted in a film, he had never seen one. Brando lost his shit about three-quarters of the way through production—fed up with Pontecorvo shooting a million takes while surreptitiously whispering to and poking Márquez to guide him through his scenes—and fled Colombia. Pontecorvo ended up shooting in more luxurious locations, chosen to Brando’s liking.
Anyway, Márquez can’t exactly act. Like Brando, he’s portraying a symbolic figure of history in the form of a character, and that’s tough duty. Brando brings more subtlety to the task, of course. Yet Márquez comes off as wholly believable as a cane-cutter, a revolutionary, a general, and a martyr. He yields nothing to Brando as a character or an on-screen force. Early in the picture we have to grant him some slack, but he’s not the only reason we have to be generous.
This version orginale—this uncut original print—is dubbed in Italian, as almost all Italian movies were. The dubbing proves a gift and a curse. A gift because this print has a richer, more detailed narrative and an epic sensibility absent in the butchered English-language version. But a curse because it splits the storytelling into two perceptual spheres.
The first, more enveloping sphere contains the lush, self-consciously gorgeous cinematography and the sophisticated visual narrative that needs no dialogue. The less convincing sphere features the scenes dependent upon the spoken word. Márquez’s dubbing seems less intrusive, maybe because we don’t know what he sounds like. But every time Brando’s mouth moves and Italian emerges, we’re hurled—and I mean hurled—out of the story and back into the awareness of sitting in a theatre watching a movie and wishing Brando would speak Inglese.
Especially because Brando wears this role as easily as the fawn-colored cut-away he sports in the final sequence. The guy loved playing upper-class (but tough-ass) fops: Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty and Lt. Christian Diestl, a Wehrmacht officer with a conscience in The Young Lions, are the forerunners of his performance. Brando’s moves are so effete, and his vocal shadings (in the shitty U.S. version) so subtle. In one key scene he speaks to a black soldier who’s helping track down Brando’s former pupil Márquez (Brando’s creation of a determined revolutionary has succeeded far too well). As long as Márquez is alive and a fugitive, the soldier tells Brando, "I have work to do and good pay. Is it not the same for you?"
And Brando says, with the perfect insouciant self-loathing of precisely the upper-class British self-betrayer he portrays, "No, on the contrary; I work for an overall sum." And the wit of that moment is lost when an Italian stranger’s voice emerges from Brando’s pie-hole. It’s sadly distracting.
In another distracting moment, you might also find yourself noticing how well Brando rides a horse. It’s tricky placing Brando at this point in his career . He’s fat but not that fat. He’s self-indulgent but still capable. It’s shocking to re-discover how much grace Brando once possessed, and how physical his performances could be.
Visually, Pontecorvo abandons the scruffy conventions of Neo-Realism, and how. Opening with a montage of psychedelic blood-spattered images over one of Ennio Morricone’s weirdest, most exhilarating songs—a deranged amalgam of 1969 Euro electronic space-jazz and soaring African chant—the film self-consciously pursues beauty for its own sake. Using dense color-saturated film, the camera lingers over lush Caribbean vegetation as it does over unspeakable slums and Graham Greene-like tropical brothels (circa 1840s). Pontecorvo’s camerawork in Battle is austere and understated; here it’s full of movement and experimentation.
Pontecorvo’s clearly enthralled with the landscape and the vibrancy of the colors. For him they’re metaphors for the seduction of the island and the life-force of its (non-European) inhabitants. He’s also seduced by sensual, dangerous moments of pure physicality: African dances, voodoo funerals, urban riots, Brando helping push a corpse-laden hand-cart past a field of indifferent workers. Where Battle replicated reality, Burn! is a movie-movie and revels in its over-the-top style. Often that style induces rapture, but sometimes the movie-ness takes over the story, leaving us in it but not of it.
For all his ruthless political insight, Pontecorvo’s no Eisenstein. He edits with restraint and a minimum of cuts. Most shots—save the usual back-and-forth in conversation—are self-contained narratives, stories in themselves. He sets a scene and then zooms or pans to the punch line. Early on, we see the bloody dead bodies of Portuguese soldiers lying in the dust. Pontecorvo pans slowly from the corpses to a mob of ragged fugitive former slaves smiling wildly and dancing joyously with their rifles held high. They’re dancing because they’ve discovered, after 200 years of slavery, that white men die as easily as black. Or, more pointedly, that African slaves can kill Europeans. And—payback being a what?—that knowledge brings ecstasy.
Prescient and germane ain’t the half of it. Vietnam was raging when Burn! was made. And there are moments clearly designed to evoke that war. The British fire endless cannon into an apparently empty and indifferent jungle. Black soldiers hunt their own kind in service to the white colonial bosses. The revolutionaries suffer incredible privation but come out fighting. With Vietnam long gone, these images of a war of culture and of race, of old orders overturned and of Western bafflement in the face of murderous hatred, offer up a new, but hardly unfamiliar, set of references. Others might say the story is "torn from today’s headlines." I’d say it predicts tomorrow’s. And has for the last 35 years. --The Brooklyn Rail