I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed Review

A Moroccan militant opposed to imperialism and colonialism, Medhi Ben Barka was abducted and killed while on a visit to Paris on the 29th October 1965. With many prominent names associated with it, the Ben Barka affair has long been a controversial subject in France, shrouded in mystery and suspicions of a government cover-up. Director Serge Le Péron would like you to believe that the killing of Ben Barka has wider resonance beyond France, and if he doesn’t entirely convince in his method, he at least throws some light on a very complicated affair, turning it into a fascinating spy thriller.

The noir allusions start early when Georges Figon (Charles Berling) is found dead in his apartment. An apparent suicide, the dead man narrates the sequence of events that led up to this moment. Having spent most of his youth in prison, Figon has the reputation of being something of a hoodlum, but in the spirit of the sixties, he has turned his criminal tendencies towards political activism. Operating his own publishing company, Figon puts out magazines and photo-novels in opposition to what he sees as the imperialist activities of the US which are overrunning French culture and having more serious consequences on the wider world. He persuades some important, like-minded and influential figures like novelist and filmmaker Marguerite Duras (Josiane Balasko) and director Georges Franju (Jean-Pierre Léaud) to support his attempts to make a film about decolonisation, highlighting recent atrocities such as the massacre of demonstrators in Casablanca.

Figon is put in touch with Medhi Ben Barka (Simon Abkarian), a prominent and outspoken opposition figure to the king of Morocco, Hassan II and militant activist against US actions and imperialism. Ben Barka is persuaded to act as a consultant, providing background to documents and newsreel footage to be presented in the film to be written by Duras and directed by Franju. However, when he arrives in Paris for a meeting with the film’s producers, Ben Barka is taken away by French police and is never seen again. Figon later gives an interview with a French magazine confessing his part in the abduction, implicating the French secret service, Moroccan intelligence and the CIA in Ben Barka’s murder. Before an investigation can be set up to look into the matter, George Figon is found dead in his apartment, apparently, but not entirely convincingly, having shot himself in the back of the head.

Serge Le Péron’s film comes opportunely at a time when French filmmakers are starting to look more closely at the murky activities buried in their country’s past, particularly their handling of affairs in North Africa. The director sticks closely to the known facts of the Ben Barka affair that came to light in subsequent investigations and testimonies, but there is a sense that the whole story is somewhat sensationalised in the film. With several big names and prominent public figures attached to the matter, that is perhaps inevitable, but the choice of narrating the story from the point of view of Georges Figon is a telling one. Figon is clearly depicted in the film as an opportunist, out to exploit the situation for whatever fame and money he could get out of it, but the film - right down to its very title which is taken from Figon’s L’Express exposé – seems similarly opportunist.

Exploiting Figon’s sense of self-importance and styling of himself as a shadowy underworld figure, I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed consequently comes across like a Jean-Pierre Melville thriller, with shady characters wearing fedoras arranging clandestine meetings in picturesque Parisian locations like the banks of the Seine, with complex double-dealing and political intrigues between factions whose allegiance you can never be quite sure of. The film looks fabulous in its period setting, but rather too stylised with no real sense of grittiness, coming across more like a Maigret adaptation rather than the dark série noire of Jean-Patrick Manchette, which this kind of dark political intrigue should really evoke. The Sunset Boulevard flashback narration device from the viewpoint of the dead man found at the start of the film is also perhaps a step too far in this referencing of movie thrillers.

Nonetheless, dressing it all up like a conventional spy thriller does at least succeed in getting across the point of I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed. Even though most of the names dropped self-importantly throughout will mean little to viewers outside France, the fact that they are played by leading figures in the movie world with a similar background of political activity – figures like Josianne Balasko playing Duras, Jean-Pierre Léaud as Franju and Mathieu Almaric as the journalist Bernier - goes a long way towards giving these characters the equivalent clout of their real-life counterparts. Most effectively however, the film succeeds to a large extent in making a murky and complex affair quite accessible and comprehensible to a viewer with little or no knowledge of the case beforehand.

I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.

Another impressive transfer from Artificial Eye, presented anamorphically at the correct ratio of 1.85:1, the film looks nigh-on perfect. The image is clear with a correctness of tone throughout, with not a visible mark on the print and perfect stability without any kind of flickering or macroblocking artefacts. Colour schemes are reasonably well represented in most scenes, but there are some limitations with the master, revealing perhaps some cross colouration and not quite perfect skin tones. This is however a very minor complaint indeed.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 options work equally well. The surround track is not showy and rarely makes significant use of the rears for ambience. The tone is warm, clear and well-rounded. There appeared to be a bit of a synchronisation problem in the last third of the film, but this was not overly noticeable.

English subtitles are provided and are optional, in a clear white appropriately sized font.

Extras are not plentiful, but as ever with Artificial Eye releases, the emphasis is on quality over quantity. The principal feature is an extensive Interview with Serge Le Péron (31:16), the director responding in both English and French to the questions asked. It’s a thorough interview, the director talking about how the film employed only the known facts of the Ben Barka affair, and giving some additional background on the case. He also talks about getting the film made, the casting and its structure. I’d take this kind of informative interview over a commentary track any day.

In line with the sensationalist nature of the film, the non-anamorphic Trailer (1:32) surprisingly gives prominence to the names of the real-life characters rather than the not exactly minor actors playing them.

The Filmographies on Le Péron, Berling, Léaud, Abkarian and Balasko provide only limited information on their careers, but again the focus is more on their characters, providing some useful biographical information on the real-life people they play.

I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed turned out to be surprisingly more accessible than I imagined a French film about the case would ever be. Inevitably however, there is a trade-off between accessibility to a wider audience and being true-to-life, and while I feel the balance tips heavily towards the sensationalist, with rather too many tributes to classic 50’s French thrillers, the film largely succeeds in being entertaining as well as getting across the important facts about a dark episode in relatively recent French political history. Artificial Eye’s release is fully up to the standards we have come to expect from them, providing a superb transfer of the film with some useful and informative extra features.

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