The last of a breed

After years of silence, Gillo Pontecorvo has died (at age 86, in Rome), taking with him the last remnant of left—wing artistic humanism.

Born in Pisa, Pontecorvo spent a large part of his life in Paris after fleeing the Mussolini regime in 1938. He was a diehard communist (his brother Bruno was one of the turncoat physicists who gave the A—bomb secret to the Soviets) who never repudiated a single element of the doctrine. He made a number of films, most of them documentaries, almost all of them dealing with politics.

But he was best known for a single film: The Battle of Algiers, a 1965 release depicting the lengthy urban guerilla conflict between French colonists and the Algerian independence movement. Algiers is a nearly unique combination of pseudo—documentary footage and fictional narrative, a gritty, utterly realistic portrayal of a city under siege. It is also one of the most effective propaganda films ever made.

Like Dr. Strangelove, the greatness of Algiers lies in its dispassionate view of both sides. Pontecorvo's bias was straightforward — sad music (by master composer Ennio Morricone) arises on the soundtrack only for the Arab victims, and never for the pieds noirs. But neither side is romanticized, and neither is demonized either. The French paratrooper general is utterly ruthless, but by no means a brute — he is a sophisticate, an intellectual, and feels considerable admiration for his opponents. The rebels are portrayed as patriots engaged in a noble conflict, but also as figures capable of shooting men in the back and ordering the beating death (by children) of a helpless drunk.

And always, there are those caught in the middle. An Arab peddler sets up his cart in the same spot as ever, only to realize that events which he does not comprehend have transformed him into an enemy. He flees in terror down the empty streets, menaced on either side by the pieds noirs cursing him from the balconies of their apartment buildings. Pontecorvo never lost sight of the fact that what was at stake was humanity itself, as easily lost by one side as the other. 

His second major film, and his only true drama, was Burn! (1970) a picture set in the Carribean in the early 19th century. Marlon Brando, in a fine, mannered performance, plays a Byronesque British agent sent to foment a revolt in a Portuguese colony. In the process he lights the fire of freedom in a young islander, who begins his own rebellion against the new overlords which must be crushed in its turn.

Burn! is also a propaganda film — an anticolonial narrative with much in the way of reference to Vietnam. But here too Pontecorvo went beyond doctrine to matters of courage, and fate, and the strange bond that grows between men on contending sides.

Two fine works is not a bad record for any man. But Pontecorvo was something more — he was the last of a breed, the sole surviving artist to whom leftism represented high aspiration rather than murderous dogma. There used to be a myriad of them — Hemingway, Dos Passos, Malraux, Kubrick, Bunuel, Kurosawa. Making their arguments in the highest terms of art, demanding to be answered in the same way. Call them naive, call them idealistic, call them foolish; they were, all the same, men of respect, attempting to reconcile the demands of politics and the heart as best they knew how.

Now they are gone, and no one has risen to replace them. Today the hacks and hysterics are all that remain, shrieking pure hatred in an artistic wasteland. Whatever their failings, Pontecorvo and his colleagues were better than that. They are only a footnote now, and that's a loss to us all.

J.R. Dunn  10 16 06

After years of silence, Gillo Pontecorvo has died (at age 86, in Rome), taking with him the last remnant of left—wing artistic humanism.

Born in Pisa, Pontecorvo spent a large part of his life in Paris after fleeing the Mussolini regime in 1938. He was a diehard communist (his brother Bruno was one of the turncoat physicists who gave the A—bomb secret to the Soviets) who never repudiated a single element of the doctrine. He made a number of films, most of them documentaries, almost all of them dealing with politics.

But he was best known for a single film: The Battle of Algiers, a 1965 release depicting the lengthy urban guerilla conflict between French colonists and the Algerian independence movement. Algiers is a nearly unique combination of pseudo—documentary footage and fictional narrative, a gritty, utterly realistic portrayal of a city under siege. It is also one of the most effective propaganda films ever made.

Like Dr. Strangelove, the greatness of Algiers lies in its dispassionate view of both sides. Pontecorvo's bias was straightforward — sad music (by master composer Ennio Morricone) arises on the soundtrack only for the Arab victims, and never for the pieds noirs. But neither side is romanticized, and neither is demonized either. The French paratrooper general is utterly ruthless, but by no means a brute — he is a sophisticate, an intellectual, and feels considerable admiration for his opponents. The rebels are portrayed as patriots engaged in a noble conflict, but also as figures capable of shooting men in the back and ordering the beating death (by children) of a helpless drunk.

And always, there are those caught in the middle. An Arab peddler sets up his cart in the same spot as ever, only to realize that events which he does not comprehend have transformed him into an enemy. He flees in terror down the empty streets, menaced on either side by the pieds noirs cursing him from the balconies of their apartment buildings. Pontecorvo never lost sight of the fact that what was at stake was humanity itself, as easily lost by one side as the other. 

His second major film, and his only true drama, was Burn! (1970) a picture set in the Carribean in the early 19th century. Marlon Brando, in a fine, mannered performance, plays a Byronesque British agent sent to foment a revolt in a Portuguese colony. In the process he lights the fire of freedom in a young islander, who begins his own rebellion against the new overlords which must be crushed in its turn.

Burn! is also a propaganda film — an anticolonial narrative with much in the way of reference to Vietnam. But here too Pontecorvo went beyond doctrine to matters of courage, and fate, and the strange bond that grows between men on contending sides.

Two fine works is not a bad record for any man. But Pontecorvo was something more — he was the last of a breed, the sole surviving artist to whom leftism represented high aspiration rather than murderous dogma. There used to be a myriad of them — Hemingway, Dos Passos, Malraux, Kubrick, Bunuel, Kurosawa. Making their arguments in the highest terms of art, demanding to be answered in the same way. Call them naive, call them idealistic, call them foolish; they were, all the same, men of respect, attempting to reconcile the demands of politics and the heart as best they knew how.

Now they are gone, and no one has risen to replace them. Today the hacks and hysterics are all that remain, shrieking pure hatred in an artistic wasteland. Whatever their failings, Pontecorvo and his colleagues were better than that. They are only a footnote now, and that's a loss to us all.

J.R. Dunn  10 16 06