Gillo Pontecorvo

Director of 'The Battle of Algiers'
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The Independent Online

Gilberto Pontecorvo, film director: born Pisa, Italy 19 November 1919; twice married (three sons); died Rome 12 October 2006.

In Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 masterpiece, La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers), a woman volunteer in the Front de Libération Nationale removes her veil and cuts her hair before adopting a European dress and hairstyle in order to pass through a French checkpoint and plant a bomb in a crowded juke joint. Later on, the French paratroop commander sent to Algiers to crush the FLN remarks, acidly, "Checking papers is ridiculous. If anyone's is in order it's the terrorist's." When asked at a press conference about the legality of his use of torture, he responds, "Is it legal to blow up public places? Believe me, gentlemen, it's a vicious circle."

The contemporary relevance of such scenes bears eloquent testimony to the intelligence of Pontecorvo's and his scriptwriter Franco Solinas' approach to the problems of colonialism and the use of terror in their remarkable film, itself the subject of serious study by both insurrectionist groups (the PLO and the Black Panthers) and those opposing them (the Pentagon in the current "war on terror").

The Battle of Algiers proved to be the highpoint of Pontecorvo's decidedly unprolific career (he made only five feature films), winning him the Golden Lion at the 1966 Venice Film Festival and three Academy Award nominations, while being banned in France until 1971, the same year in which it was released (with cuts) in Britain.

Gillo Pontecorvo was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Pisa in 1919. Two of his elder brothers became distinguished scientists (one of them, Bruno, an atomic physicist, caused a scandal by defecting to the Soviet Union in 1950), and Gillo himself, despite a desire to study music, seemed set to follow them when he graduated in Chemistry from his home-town university. The introduction of Mussolini's race laws, however, saw him join his brothers in France, where he worked as a reporter and a tennis instructor. During the Second World War, by then a member of the Italian Communist Party, he returned home, both organising and participating in various resistance activities.

Pontecorvo's interest in cinema was aroused by Roberto Rossellini's neo-realist classic Paisà (Paisan, 1946), and he found work as an assistant director on films by Steno, Mario Monicelli and Francesco Maselli, as well as acting in Aldo Vergano's Il sole sorge ancora (Outcry, 1946). In the 1950s, Pontecorvo met Franco Solinas, also a Communist, whose novella Squarciò formed the basis of his first feature film, La grande strada azzurra (The Wide Blue Road) in 1957 - the story of a fisherman who persists in dynamiting his catch in defiance of the law.

In 1960, Pontecorvo and Solinas collaborated on Kapò, a story set in the Nazi death camps. Starring Susan Strasberg as a Jewish prisoner who, in order to survive, becomes a kapo before heroically sacrificing herself as an act of atonement, the film received mixed reviews, and was dismissed by the Monthly Film Bulletin as a "corrupt and superficial tear-jerker".

Early in the 1960s, the pair began to develop a story called Para, which dealt with France's colonial war in Indochina, but, despite interest from Paul Newman, the film never materialised. Pontecorvo was then approached by the Algerian government to film the story of the country's struggle for independence. Already heavily influenced by the anti-colonial writings of Frantz Fanon (who had fought with the FLN), Pontecorvo and Solinas flew to Algiers. Pontecorvo assembled a non-professional cast, before spending a month with the cameraman Marcello Gatti deciding how best to replicate the look of newsreel footage, and co-writing the score with Ennio Morricone.

The Battle of Algiers unfolds in a series of flashbacks initially centred round the character of Ali la Pointe, a former boxer, now unemployed, who is radicalised and joins the fledgling FLN. One of the most remarkable aspects of the film, considering the makers' political views, is its even-handedness. Pontecorvo does not disguise the brutality of the FLN's actions, his camera lingering on the faces of those, a small child included, who will shortly be killed in a bombing. Nor is the paratroop commander, Colonel Mathieu, presented entirely unsympathetically. It is this quality, engaged yet detached, which reveals Pontecorvo's humanity and makes The Battle of Algiers, unlike most political films, such a powerful experience.

Pontecorvo and Solinas followed it with ¡Queimada! (Burn!, 1969), starring Marlon Brando as a 19th-century British agent provocateur sent to destabilise a Portuguese colony in the Caribbean. Though lacking the visceral power of their previous collaboration, it proved to a thoughtful and satisfying meditation on the nature of colonialism, one that had much in common thematically with the political spaghetti westerns on which Solinas had worked at that time.

Speaking of the inherent contradiction of making political films with capitalist backing, Pontecorvo (who left the Communist Party in 1956) once remarked,

A film is not a revolution . . . But cinema can be a way of revitalising a people's deadened responses . . . That is why I believe in a cinema which addresses itself to the masses and not a cinema d'élite - for an élite.

Pontecorvo's last feature film, written without Solinas, was Ogro (Operation Ogre, 1979), about an Eta assassination in Spain. In 1992, having been appointed director of the Venice Film Festival, he was credited with reviving the fortunes of that once illustrious competition. Last year, he attended a 40th-anniversary screening of The Battle of Algiers at the American Academy in London, although it was clear he was in failing health.

Pontecorvo's son Marco is a director of photography who worked on the HBO/BBC series Rome.

John Exshaw