Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

Forum locked This topic is locked, you cannot edit posts or make further replies.  [ 1 post ] 
Author Message
PostPosted: Thu Jan 27, 2022 8:19 pm 
Site Admin

Joined: Sat Mar 08, 2003 1:50 pm
Posts: 4680
Location: California/NYC



A morally complex view of French colonialism in Algeria on the eve of independence

Les Oliviers de la justice, now restored and revived at Metrograph, is a largely forgotten fiction feature film by the important and prolific American documentary filmmaker James Blue. Especially active during the Sixties and Seventies, though he died in 1980 at age 49, Blue, colleague of the Dutch documentary filmmaker Johan Van Der Keuken, friend of the Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, made a number of significant nonfiction films (see Wikipedia ); he was nominated for an Academy Award for A Few Notes On Our Food Problem in 1968. He grew up and was educated in Oregon, then studying at the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC) in Paris from 1956-58, just before he made this French-language film. Later he worked for the US Information Service. In 1964 he taught at the first classes of the American Film Institute; among his students were Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Thom Andersen, and Jim Morrison.

Blue shot the film in Algiers when the war of independence there was peaking, using a cast of non-actors and real people on the street, creating a time capsule of rare value. Many of the black and white exterior shots by dp Julius Rascheff are gorgeous, some of them reminiscent of Cartier-Bresson's coverage of the Middle East. They remind us of how much the styles of still and motion picture photography harmonized at the time.

The solemnity and angst of the atmosphere is immediately set by Maurice Jarre's angular modernist score that opens with sweeping cityscapes and helicopters overhead (Fellini's La Dolce Vita had staged one two years before); later the entire city is shut down for Ashura, a Muslim day of mourning. The overall subject is the moral complexity of colonialism, the way pioneering French figures helped build up Algeria and deeply cared about the land, but could not escape from condescending attitudes or the resentment of the local Arab natives. The French colonizers' pied-noir, Algerian-born offspring, like Jean (Pierre Prothon), the film's narrator, grow up loving the land but ambivalent, fearing it will engulf them and turn on them - and they on it.

The source is the eponymous autobiographical novel of Jean Pélégri, who both co-wrote, co-directed, and plays the role of Jean's fatally ill father whom Jean has returned to be with, leaving his wife and child in Paris, where he has lived for all his adult life, being now in his thirties. As Jean reconnects with his childhood friends, walks the barricaded streets, hillside slums and bustling markets of Algiers, or sits with his father and mother (Marie Decaître) in the bedroom of their modest flat in Bab et Oued, the story weaves its way back and forth between these present day scenes and flashbacks to Jean's childhood, when his father built up a vineyard and olive groves in a farm that flourished, working with Algerian Arabs and speaking Arabic, while little Jean had Arab playmates.

Blue contrives supple, artful transitions between the two time frames of the eve of Algerian independence in the city and rural recreations of a colonial era thirty years before. These alternations, smoothed by editors Suzanne Gaveau and Marie-Claude Barisets, are a perhaps obvious but nonetheless resonant means of contrasting a time of hope and what the French may have thought was eager cooperation with the disenchantment and hostility of 1961, the approaching end of a seven-year war - the war itself of course a period famously delineated in Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers/La battaglia di Algeri.

The flashbacks are the more nostalgic because Jean's father lost his farm many years ago through bad business dealings and has long been living in the capital. We can only imagine what he has been doing since the collapse of his farm, but he has not wanted to return to France, and he now wants Jean to come back to live in Algeria. But bombs are being diffused all the time; vineyards and olive groves are being cut down on French farms in acts of terrorism, and checkpoints have to be passed, à la Occupied Palestine only in reverse, even for Jean's father's country burial.

By implication, but not explicitly, Jean understands the war of independence. But he does not want to "kowtow" to the Arabs now, while his flashbacks show the way the locals, even Embarek, a reverent, slightly pompous, Algerian elder of lengthy stature and flowing headcloth, had to treat the boy with exaggerated respect, and the many marabout shrines to hajjis he tends, Jean's father treats as an obstruction and threatens to destroy. Jean's best friend Saïd, he soon learns, now is a member of the revolutionary forces hiding in the mountains, while his other boyhood companion Boralfa works for Jean’s mother as a servant. "Do you know why we rebel?" Boralfa says to Jean. "We have no country." Jean's cousin Louise (Huguette Poggi) exhibits colonialism's cruder form. Preaching get-tough violence she thinks would quell the revolt, she says "Force is the only thing they understand;" "it's in their religion," and she proposes that for every attack on French property "shooting ten of them" would "settle this." We know it didn't.

As Jean walks around the crowded streets of Algiers, full of cops, soldiers, common people, and undercover revolutionaries as well as "beggars, children, shoppers and merchants," Neely Swanson in her Easy Reader review suggests his "blank features and detached demeanor" are "reminiscent of the disconnected protagonist of Camus' Existentialist novel, The Stranger" - a book then still resonant - and he "sees nothing that relates to the Algeria of his youth." In his recent New York Times review J. Hoberman, who likewise says this films is "still resonant," similarly notes the resemblance to Camus' Stranger, also in Algiers after losing a parent and feeling a foreigner in his own land, with Jean here. Hoberman adds that Prothon "has the anguished blankness" of "a Robert Bresson principal," and points out that Pélégri - not totally a non-actor, then, had just played the police detective in Bresson’s Pickpocket. But Hoberman points out Les Oliviers opened in Paris after its May 1962 Cannes debut, at a time when the Algerian War had come home and revanchists were setting bombs to kill Algerians. Many of different persuasions found Blue's film soothing, Hoberman says, but the French could make no "philosophical" film about a conflict still so long, hot, and painful for all concerned and this film " utterly failed to attract a French audience." Nonetheless AlloCiné provides highly favorable comments from Cahiers du Cinéma and Le Monde from a recent French rerelease. But back then nostalgic Frenchmen might particularly not have liked what Hoberman calls Jean's "abrupt, impulsive decision in the film's final moments," which caps its running ambivalence.

Some may find the pace of Blue's film languid, its austere, elegiac finale inconclusive; but what counts beside the multifaceted picture of the colonial world, is the lovely, rich texture created by the bold, fluent direct photo documentation, what Thomas Sotinel of Le Monde calls its "immense charge of reality." The film succeeds also because the more elaborately staged flashback segments are so well done, so the past and present segments feel equally vivid and real. The whole is cohesive visual poem conversant in cinéma-vérité and neorealismo. It was after all after all shot at a time when the Nouvelle Vague was just coming into bloom.

Les Oliviers de la justice , 81 mins., debuted at Cannes May 1962 winning Blue the Prix de la Société des Écrivains de Cinéma et Télévision, and the Critics prize, the last American to receive it till Coppola for Apocalypse Now in 1979. It was part of the Main Slate of the first New York Film Festival in fall 1963. Kino Lorber is presenting a 60th anniversary re-release in a new 4K restoration - its black and white looking handsome and feathery - shown at Metrograph Jan. 18 and at American Cinematheque Feb. 4, 2022.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

Display posts from previous:  Sort by  
Forum locked This topic is locked, you cannot edit posts or make further replies.  [ 1 post ] 

All times are UTC - 8 hours

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: Google [Bot] and 19 guests

You cannot post new topics in this forum
You cannot reply to topics in this forum
You cannot edit your posts in this forum
You cannot delete your posts in this forum
You cannot post attachments in this forum

Search for:
Jump to:  
Powered by phpBB® Forum Software © phpBB Group