Nationality: Italian. Born: Gilberto Pontecorvo in Pisa, 19 November 1919. Education: Studied chemistry, University of Pisa. Military Service: Journalist, and partisan fighter, Milan (commanded 3rd Brigade), World War II. Career: Youth secretary, Italian Communist Party, 1946; Paris correspondent for Italian journals, late 1940s; began in films as assistant to Yves Allegret on Les Miracles n'ont lieu qu'une fois, 1951; made ten shorts, 1953–55; left Communist Party following invasion of Hungary, 1956; organizer of Venice Film Festival. Awards: Golden Lion, Venice Festival, for The Battle of Algiers, 1966. Address: via Paolo Frisi 18, Rome, Italy.
Films as Director:
"Giovanna" episode of Die Windrose
La grande strada azzurra (La lunga strada azzurra; The LongBlue Road) (+ co-sc)
Kapò (+ co-sc)
La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers) (+ co-sc, co-mus)
Ogro (Operation Ogro)
The Devil's Bishop
Nostalgia di protezione (+ sc); Segment titled "Nostalgia di protezione" in I Corti italiani (+ sc)
Il sole sorge ancora (Vergano) (role as partisan)
By PONTECORVO: articles—
Interview with Guy Hennebelle, in Cinéma (Paris), December 1965.
"The Battle of Algiers: An Adventure in Filmmaking," in AmericanCinematographer (Los Angeles), April 1967.
Interview with Joan Mellen, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1972.
"Using the Contradictions of the System," an interview with H. Kalishman, in Cineaste (New York), vol. 6, no. 2, 1974.
Interview with C. Lucas, in Cineaste (New York), Fall 1980.
"Che cosa mi sta a cuore," in Cinema Nuovo, November/December 1992.
"Fest Topper's Trip down Memory Lane," an interview with David Rooney, in Variety, August 28, 1995.
On PONTECORVO: books—
Mellen, Joan, Filmguide to "The Battle of Algiers," Bloomington, Indiana, 1973.
Solinas, Franco, Gillo Pontecorvo's "The Battle of Algiers": A FilmWritten by Franco Solinas, New York, 1973.
Michalczyk, John J., The Italian Political Filmmakers, Cranbury, New Jersey, 1986.
On PONTECORVO: articles—
Wilson, David, "Politics and Pontecorvo," in Sight and Sound (London), Fall 1970.
Young, Deborah, "Pontecorvo Roars into Role as Fest Chief," in Variety, March 2, 1992.
Branbergen, A., "De stad moet onze prima donna zijn," in Skoop, September 1992.
Young, Deborah, "Fest Topper Crusading for Filmmakers," in Variety, September 6, 1993.
Alexander, Max, "The Road to Venice," in Variety (New York), 30 May 1994.
Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), no. 12, 1995.
Sight and Sound (London), March 1997.
* * *
Gillo Pontecorvo is concerned with the oppressed, those kept down by the unjust and cruel use of power—and who will eventually rebel against the oppressor. "I've always wanted to look at man during the hardest moments of his life," the filmmaker has stated. An examination of his filmography indicates that he has been true to his goals and ideals. Kapò, for example, is the story of a young Jewish girl and her attempt to survive in a Nazi concentration camp. But Pontecorvo's masterpiece is The Battle of Algiers, a meticulous recreation of the historical events surrounding the successful rebellion against the French by Algeria between 1954 and 1962.
Shot in authentic locales with both actors and non-professionals in a cinéma-vérité style, Pontecorvo's black-and-white images seem like newsreels rather than staged sequences; the viewer can easily forget that the film is not a documentary. Additionally, the villains (chiefly the French Colonel Mathieu, played by Jean Martin) are not sadistic, one-dimensional imperialists, thugs and goons who abuse the rights of those they have colonized. While Mathieu is far from benevolent, he is believable and sympathetic, as much the victim of an exploitative society as the Algerians; the colonel even admits that the Algerians are destined to win—this is a lesson of history—and his job is just to temporarily put off the inevitable.
The same is true for the most visible tyrant in Burn!, Sir William Walker (Marlon Brando), a confused, self-destructive British adventurer who betrays the slaves who revolt on a Portuguese-controlled, sugar-producing Caribbean island in the mid-nineteenth century. Both Walker and Mathieu are depicted as human beings—with misguided values, perhaps, but human beings nonetheless. However, while The Battle of Algiers is a near-flawless film, the scenario of Burn! is muddled in that Walker's motives are never really clear. Both films are potent politically in that the imperialists are not caricatured, yet at the same time it is clear that Pontecorvo sides with the Algerians and the slaves. At the beginning of The Battle of Algiers, for example, a tortured Algerian is held up by French paratroopers. Despite all that follows, this sequence is in and of itself a political statement, one that sets the tone for all that follows.
Pontecorvo is a Marxist: in 1941, at the age of twenty-two, he became a member of the Italian Communist Party. His initial film, the "Giovanna" episode from Die Windrose, is a women's rights movie shot in East Germany. And, in The Battle of Algiers, he deals specifically with partisans of the Algerian National Liberation Front who, via their actions, increase the political awareness of their fellow citizens. Here Pontecorvo illustrates how a group of individuals can unite into a political force and defeat a common enemy. This is achieved by violent means: if freedom is to be earned, suffering and physical force and even the deaths of innocent people may be necessary. Gillo Pontecorvo is a filmmaker whose art is scrupulously true to his politics.