Crafted as a cine-reportage restaging of the circumstances surrounding the 1965 abduction – and presumed assassination – of mathematics professor and exiled Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka (Simon Abkarian) on a Paris street, I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed is told from the point-of-view of petty criminal turned informant Georges Figon (Charles Berling) who, as the film begins, lies dead on the floor of a hotel room with a gun shot wound in the back in what the investigator would expediently classify as a suicide. But the reality of Figon’s involvement with the still-unsolved disappearance would undoubtedly prove to be more complicated. Recruited by a nebulous band of politically connected thugs, Figon poses as an intermediary and aspiring producer bearing guaranteed financial backers for a proposed film on decolonization, a project that attracts the attention of the usually-cautious Barka who views renowned filmmaker Georges Franju’s (Jean-Pierre Léaud) involvement in the project as a sign of its legitimacy, and envisions his own participation as an opportunity to rally the Third World movement during his planned appearance for the upcoming Tricontinental Conference in Cuba. Meanwhile, Figon has been burning both sides of the candle as the charismatic con-artist insinuates himself into the company of author and scenarist Marguerite Duras (Josiane Balasko) by appealing to her first-hand childhood experiences with the inequity of colonialism in French Indochina (as well as touting Barka’s participation), and who, in turn, has expressed interest in bringing her good friend Franju into the project in an attempt to reinvigorate his career (and psyche) after suffering a nervous breakdown following the financial failure of his latest film. Filmmaker Serge Le Péron employs a clinical and objective tripartite structure of the film that, like the real-life incident, reflects the messy and tangled web of crossed alliances, double-dealing, deception, and betrayal that interweaves the scandal – a journalistic approach that ultimately suffers in its broadstroke rendering of underlying human stories (Franju’s breakdown, Duras’ anticolonial activism, or even Figon’s chameleon-like social networking) in favor of a more comprehensive, if less insightful cultural snapshot of the volatile zeitgeist that ignited the political powder keg of the Ben Barka affair.
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