Shot in Algeria on the eve of independence, “The Olive Trees of Justice” is the only fiction film by the American documentarian James Blue and, based on a novel by the French Algerian writer Jean Pélégri, one that acknowledges colonial oppression as well as post-colonial displacement.
Blue’s movie, which had its United States premiere in 1963 as part of the first New York Film Festival, has been revived at Metrograph, newly restored and still resonant.
Unsurprisingly, “Olive Trees” has a strong neorealist component. A pre-credit statement announces it as a movie without professional actors. The protagonist Jean (Pierre Prothon) is a young pied-noir — a settler of European descent — who has returned to Algiers from France to be with his dying father (played by Pélégri, who also wrote the screenplay). Some of the strongest scenes follow him through the city’s barricaded streets, hillside slums and bustling markets. In a moment that feels more stolen than staged, French soldiers shut down traffic to check an abandoned shopping bag for explosives. Evidently, the production was itself targeted by right-wing settlers.
The movie also has an existentialist aspect. Like the antihero of Camus’s “The Stranger,” also set in Algiers, Jean experiences the death of a parent and views himself as a foreigner in his native land. Prothon has the anguished blankness of a Robert Bresson principal. (Not coincidentally Pélégri had just played the police detective in Bresson’s “Pickpocket.”) Maurice Jarre’s solemn, modernist score adds the underlying angst, as do the helicopters hovering over the city, which, midway through the film, shuts down for Ashura, an Islamic day of mourning.
Jean’s return is a trip into his past, shown in extended flashbacks. His dying father, a self-made man, is not so much nostalgic for his lost vineyard (taken by creditors) as for a world “where everyone knew their place.” Jean’s memories are now tainted by a relative’s desire to hold on to her farm by any means necessary and the news that his childhood best friend has joined the National Liberation Army in the mountains.
The pervasive sense of impending conflict evoked an unusually personal response from the New York Times reviewer Howard Thompson. Self-identified as a “moviegoer from Dixie who has never set foot in North Africa,” Thompson wrote that the portrait of French settlers forced to enclose their vineyards with barbed wire “suggests trouble clouds scudding over a placid but firmly run plantation of yore.” This nostalgic characterization of slavery notwithstanding, Thompson praised the film’s balance. And indeed Blue is a sympathetic witness to a zero-sum conflict.
Having won an award at Cannes in May 1962, “Olive Trees” opened in Paris that June, eight months after hundreds of Algerians were massacred in the city, with French revanchists still planting bombs. The war had come home. Some found the film’s measured gravity a palliative. The Times correspondent Cynthia Grenier reported its praise by critics across the political spectrum who “seemed to have but one regret: that no Frenchman had the courage to make such a film” — perhaps with good reason. The movie utterly failed to attract a French audience.
“Olive Trees” is steeped in ambivalence — a dilemma manifest in the abrupt, impulsive decision Jean makes in the movie’s final moments.
The Olive Trees of Justice
Friday-Sunday, in person and streaming at Metrograph, Manhattan; metrograph.com.