In my Pontecorvo obit, I talked briefly about the the historical intimacy achieved in Battle of Algiers:
What really thrills about Battle of Algiers after all of these years is not that you feel in the midst of events; that's been done too much since to feel freshly radical. Battle's amplified intensity comes from being in the midst of events. As people riot in the street, the world is changing and we are party to it. This is not the distanced "historical" perspective of a film about the past; this is Saadi Yacef's book (and life) surrounding us. It's not spectatorship but intimacy here; Pontecorvo's camera gives up showing in favor of participation. This goes for both sides of the fight - we're as intimate with the general giving a press conference as we are with the young woman cutting her hair to slip past security checkpoints. This is radical, because filmmakers mostly align themselves with the watchers. In that press conference, the reporters are adversaries, or decorations; they remind us that there is a France back home watching what we do and deciding between leaving Algeria, or accepting the consequences of our actions there. It's no wonder that Pontecorvo and the Pentagon agree that Battle of Algiers correlates strongly with our experience in Iraq.
Burn!, though, is an altogether different beast. In place of the revolutionary vérité of Battle of Algiers, Burn! offers a dialectic conception of revolutionary theory. Again, though, it's an object lesson in revolutionary history and the politics of fighting for self-determination. Like Battle of Algiers, the film's ending dramatizes continual struggle rather than settled history.
Amy Taubin's piece on the film mentions the revolutionary theory at the film's heart ("Pontecorvo's blending of cinematic romanticism with an analysis of black revolutionary struggle which is part Marx and part Franz Fanon") on the way to discussing Brando's (very dense and very successful) performance. I'd like to offer a reflection on Pontecorvo's use of revolutionary theory and the conception of history it implies.
I note immediately that Brando's character is the engine that transforms native hatred and resentment into uprising. His positioning of outlaws with their community - in opposition to the forces of colonialism - is itself a colonial act, a use of native resources to the furthering of European ends. In spite of the agenda of Brando's agent provocateur, the natives are successful in leading their own rebellion. They're later sold out, of course, as revolution crosses the line from productive to dangerous to European interests. Having traded slavery for servitude, the natives of Queimada have also gained a revolutionary consciousness. The genie is out of the bottle, and the struggle for self-determination continues. The film closes with someone having taken Jose Dolores's place in a number of ways. The repetition of a line from earlier in the film calls to mind the "I am Spartacus" revolutionary unity of a people oppressed who have seen their shackles broken and who, in spite of their new shackles, remain free. Jose Dolores and his army may never have known how to run a country, but they new how to seize one, and in the process seize also their dignity. For Pontecorvo, revolutionary consciousness can be introduced by necessity but can never be taken away. He knows that the capitalist-imperialist juggernaut will continue, but not without a fight, because that juggernaut does not have the right to take all for itself. The real issue is the rights of man, rights which no one is given, which are taken away at every turn - and which each of us is responsible for seizing for ourselves.