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Gillo Pontecorvo, 86, director of ‘Battle of Algiers,’ dies

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  • Gillo Pontecorvo, 86, director of ‘Battle of Algiers,’ dies

    ROME, Oct. 13 — Gillo Pontecorvo, the Italian filmmaker who explored terrorism and torture in colonial Algeria in the powerful and influential 1965 classic, “The Battle of Algiers,” died here on Thursday. He was 86.

    His death was confirmed by a hospital spokesman, Nicola Cerbino, but no cause was given, The Associated Press said. Other news reports said he had suffered a heart attack a few months ago.

    A documentary maker for much of his career, Mr. Pontecorvo made only a handful of feature films, writing and directing them. Most have political overtones. In his first, “The Wide Blue Road” (1957), the theme is class struggle in a fishing village; “Kapo” (1960), an Academy Award nominee for best foreign film, depicts the lot of a Jewish girl in a World War II concentration camp; “Ogro” (1979) concerns terrorism in Spain at the end of the Franco regime.

    Another major film, “Burn!” (1969), starring Marlon Brando and released by United Artists, centers on a slave revolt against colonial masters on a Portuguese-controlled Caribbean island. Though set in the 19th century, it contains overt references to the film’s own time.

    But Mr. Pontecorvo will be remembered best for “The Battle of Algiers,” a stark portrayal, shot in black and white, of the bloody uprisings that led to Algeria’s independence from France in 1962. Admired and honored when it first appeared, it received renewed acclaim when it was rereleased in the United States in 2004. A. O. Scott, writing in The New York Times, called the film “astonishing cinema vérité” and “a political thriller of unmatched realism and a combat picture remorseless in its clarity.”

    The movie was based on a book by Saadi Yacef, who had been the leader of the insurgent cell in the Algiers Casbah that the French crushed in 1957. He survived capture and, after Algerian independence, approached Mr. Pontecorvo to make the film.

    “Had it been up to Yacef, the result would have been pure propaganda,” the author Michael Ignatieff wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 2004. “Pontecorvo held out for a deeper vision, and the result is a masterpiece, at once a justification for acts of terror and an unsparing account of terror’s cost, including to the cause it serves.”

    The film depicts a cycle of escalating violence and torture as revolutionaries of the National Liberation Front attack fellow Arabs and the French police, who then retaliate, only to provoke more attacks.

    Mr. Yacef also produced the film and had a starring role as the leader of the revolutionaries. Indeed, the cast of the film, shot on location in the Casbah, consisted almost entirely of nonprofessional actors, adding to its grim documentary quality.

    “The Battle of Algiers” won the Golden Lion for best film at the 1966 Venice International Film Festival. (Mr. Pontecorvo directed the festival for four years, starting in 1992.) But its legend grew as it was used as a kind of training film by both urban guerrillas and the authorities trying to suppress them. The Black Panthers studied the film in the 1960’s, and in 2003, months after the war against Iraqi insurgents began, the Pentagon screened the film for military and civilian war planners.

    In a 2004 interview with The International Herald Tribune, Mr. Pontecorvo said he had found the Pentagon’s interest in the film “a little strange.” The most “The Battle of Algiers” could do, he said, is “teach how to make cinema, not war.”

    Gilberto Pontecorvo was born on Nov. 19, 1919, in Pisa, Italy, one of 10 children of a wealthy Jewish industrialist. He was a steadfast Communist, and his older brother, Bruno Pontecorvo, became a prominent nuclear scientist who defected to Moscow in the 1950’s.

    Mr. Pontecorvo moved to Paris after the Mussolini government passed laws in 1938 discriminating against Jews. When Nazi forces invaded Paris in 1940, he moved to St.-Tropez. He later joined the anti-Fascist resistance in Italy, becoming leader of a faction in Milan. He was a tennis teacher, a deep-sea diver and a newspaper correspondent in France before he turned to film.

    After the war, he became an assistant to the directors Yves Allégret and Joris Ivens in Paris. Returning to Italy, he made documentaries. Though he stopped making feature films in 1979, with “Ogro,” he continued to make documentaries, shorts and television commercials.

    He is survived by his wife, Picci, and three sons, Ludovico, Marco and Simone.

    Mr. Pontecorvo was to lie in wake at City Hall in Rome until Saturday morning. The Italian news agency ANSA said that the government of Algeria had sent a crown in his honor to be placed near the bier.

    Gillo Pontecorvo, 86, director of ‘Battle of Algiers,’ dies

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