A docudrama retelling of the 1965 kidnapping and probable murder of Moroccan revolutionary Mehdi Ben Barka, "I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed" is a fascinating fourth feature from Serge Le Peron. The plot's mix of highbrows, low-lives and film-biz glamour offers a pleasing brain-stretching buzz similar to "L.A. Confidential," but with a Left Bank setting.

A docudrama retelling of the 1965 kidnapping and probable murder of Moroccan revolutionary Mehdi Ben Barka, “I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed” is a fascinating fourth feature from helmer Serge Le Peron (“The Marcorelle Affair”). Although French as foie gras, from its frame of political reference to its Gallic brand of film noir, the plot’s mix of highbrows, low-lives and film-biz glamour offers a pleasing brain-stretching buzz similar to “L.A. Confidential,” but with a Left Bank setting. Name cast (Charles Berling, Jean-Pierre Leaud) and critical plaudits helped the pic make a minor killing in itsrecent limited domestic release, but the subject could baffle auds offshore.

Based on a true story, (also the basis for helmer Yves Boisset’s fictionalized 1972 thriller “The Assassination”), “Ben Barka” stresses the spy shenanigans less than character and capturing the turbulent spirit of the late ’60s. Opening archival footage offers a brisk primer on war and Third World discontent circa 1965, the year Moroccan left-wing politico-turned-exile Mehdi Ben Barka (actually a supporting character here, though suavely portrayed by Simon Abkarian from “Yes”) was ‘disappeared’ in Paris. A suspected victim of the Moroccan secret service and probably the CIA, his body was never found.

Lynchpin figure and main protag here is not the titular character, but rather Georges Figon (Berling), an ex-con from a bourgeois background who had managed to parlay his prison record into an introduction to Paris’ arty and radical-chic circles. As the pic gets under way, Figon is trying to become a legitimate film producer while still maintaining contact with the underworld.

Partly to make a franc, and partly out of principles, Figon sets in motion plans to make a film about decolonization, to be penned by Marguerite Duras (wryly played by Josiane Balasko), who wrote “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” and helmed by the maverick talent behind “Eyes Without a Face,” Georges Franju (Jean-Pierre Leaud, hitting just the right note of drawling self-absorption).

Egged on by shadowy Moroccan operative Chtouki (Azize Kabouche), Figon manages to persuade Ben Barka to consider collaborating on the project. “I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed,” strongly backed by eyewitness reports and later testimony, posits that Figon had Ben Barka set up. While on his way to meet Figon at a brasserie, Ben Barka is intercepted by Moroccan secret service agents (a scene watched guiltily here by Figon from a window), and then taken to a suburban villa owned by gangster friends of Figon’s.

Elegantly modulated, pic starts out, despite its ostensibly grim subject, in an almost blackly comic vein, observing the bizarre collision of these seemingly irreconcilable subcultures, all of which Berling’s Figon moves through with slippery ease, finally fumbling as he gets in way over his head.

Momentum could easily have slid away after Ben Barka meets his fate, but Le Peron’s methodical helming maintains interest in the pic’s wealth of subplots and characters, drawing out the growing sense of moral nausea of all involved as the abduction snowballs into a full-scale political scandal. The ultimate implications will mean more to French and Francophile auds, but the intrigue is unpacked skillfully enough to absorb the average thriller aficionado’s attention.

Period feel is finely established by craftspeople, forging credibility without swamping the foreground with details. Claustrophobic sets and locations, cool-toned palette and a jazz-infused score by Pierre-Alexandre Mati and Joan Albert Amargos wink toward vintage French black-and-whites, particularly those by Jean-Pierre Melville and Jacques Becker.

I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed

France-Morocco-Spain

Production

A Rezo Films (in France) release of a Maia Films (France) production, in association with Casablanca Films Production (Morocco)/Mallerich Films, (Spain)/Films, Studio Mac Tari, Arte France Cinema (France), with the participation of Cine-Cinema, TPS Star, 2 M-Maroc, Televisio de Catalunya, and the support of CNC, CCM, ICIC, the region of Ile-De France. Executive producer, Gilles Sandoz. Co-producer, Paco Poch. Directed by Serge Le Peron. Co-director, Said Smihi. Screenplay, Le Peron, Frederique Moreau, Smihi.

Crew

Camera (color), Christophe Pollock; editor, Janice Jones; music, Pierre-Alexandre Mati, Joan Albert Amargos; production designer, Patrick Durand; costume designer, Justine Pearce; sound (Dolby Digital), Brigitte Taillandier, Jean-Guy Veran. Reviewed at London Film Festival (French Revolutions), Oct. 25, 2005. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Charles Berling, Simon Abkarian, Josiane Balasko, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Fabienne Babe, Mathieu Amalric, Azize Kabouche, Francois Hadji-Lazaro, Jean-Marie Winling, Franck Tiozzo, Jo Prestia, Esteve Ferrer, Georges Bigot, Rony Kramer. (French, Arabic dialogue)
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