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Gillo Pontecorvo, 86; Movie Director Best Known for `The Battle of Algiers'

October 14, 2006|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo, who directed the black-and-white classic "The Battle of Algiers," has died in Rome, hospital officials said Friday. He was 86.

Pontecorvo died Thursday night, hospital spokesman Nicola Cerbino said. The cause of death was not given, but reports said he had suffered a heart attack months ago.

Pontecorvo directed only a handful of feature movies in a career that spanned decades, earning the nickname of "lazy director." But he remained involved in the world of cinema, directing documentaries and heading the Venice Film Festival for several years.

A former resistance fighter during World War II, Pontecorvo maintained strong political passions that were reflected in his movies.

His 1959 film "Kapo" told the story of a Jewish girl trying to escape from a concentration camp, and "Queimada" in 1969 starred Marlon Brando in a tale against colonialism.

But it was "The Battle of Algiers" that made his name.

The 1966 epic depicts the Algerian uprising against the French in the 1950s in a documentary-like style, with a cast of mostly untrained actors and a distinctive score by Pontecorvo and Ennio Morricone. The film was banned in France for years.

It won a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, as well as Oscar nominations for best director, best screenplay and best foreign film.

When "The Battle of Algiers" was re-released in 2004, Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan said that it "depicts one of the paradigmatic dynamics of our time, the guerrilla struggle to get out from under what the occupied perceive to be the oppressive weight of an occupying power."

The Pentagon considered the movie accurate and powerful enough to use as a training tool, screening it for military and civilian experts in 2003.

But Pontecorvo didn't expect viewers to approach his film from an educational standpoint.

"I don't think that any film can teach anything," he told an International Herald Tribune reporter in 2004. " I think that the most 'The Battle of Algiers' can do is teach how to make cinema, not war."

The movie was groundbreaking for its neo-documentary techniques, so convincing that the initial distributors attached a disclaimer saying, "Not one foot of newsreel has been used."

Critic Pauline Kael called it "probably the most emotionally stirring revolutionary epic since Eisenstein's 'Potemkin.' "

Born Gilberto Pontecorvo on Nov. 19, 1919, in Pisa to a wealthy Jewish family, he moved to France to escape the Fascist regime's 1938 racial laws, supporting himself as a tennis instructor.

In his early 20s, he started shuttling between Milan and France to maintain contacts between anti-Fascist movements, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica said. He then came back to Milan and headed a resistance brigade.

After World War II, he studied chemistry and worked as a journalist before taking up directing, starting with documentaries.

His first feature-length movie, in 1957, was a tale of a fishing community starring Yves Montand and Alida Valli called "La Grande Strada Azzurra" ("The Wide Blue Road").

One of his last movies, "Ogro" in 1980, was set in Spain in the years of dictator Francisco Franco.

Pontecorvo served as director of the Venice Film Festival from 1992 to 1994.

News of his death came as Rome was preparing to open the first edition of its film festival, and hundreds of movie executives, celebrities and industry VIPS were told of it as they gathered for a ceremony to honor Sean Connery.

Pontecorvo is survived by his wife, Picci, and three children. Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.

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