The great Italian political filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo died last night at age 86. Pontecorvo directed relatively few features in his long career, but he made one for the ages with 1966's The Battle Of Algiers, a clear-eyed look at the French-Algerian conflict that was so realistic that it needed a disclaimer in the opening credits to convince audiences it wasn't a newsreel. Pontecorvo's refusal to condemn the abhorrent tactics employed by both sides—the Algerians used coordinated terrorist attacks to rattle the colonists and provoke a popular uprising; the French used torture to weed out terrorist cells—was a potent acknowledgement of the ugly realities of conflict. Though Pontecorvo's sympathies ultimately lie with the Algerians, the film's even-handedness and extraordinary verisimilitude remain its most enduring qualities, and its resonances with the current war in Iraq are unmistakable.

Pontecorvo's other major work, 1969's Burn! (a.k.a. Queimada!), was a disaster at the time, due mainly to the director's temperamental relationship with star Marlon Brando and an awkward incorporation of real and nonprofessional actors, but it has since gained a well-earned cult reputation. Again, Pontecorvo tackled an uprising in occupied territory—in this case, a fictionalized island under British rule in the 1840s—but his sympathies with the oppressed were considerably more pointed this time. The film is most fascinating for Brando's great performance as a military man who stokes an uprising in the first half, then cruelly proceeds to quell the same forces when the political winds shift.

A short obituary can be found here.