Grade: A Z (1969)

Director: Costa-Gavras

Stars: Yves Montand, Irene Papas, Jean-Louis Trintignant, François Périer, Jacques Perrin

Release Company: Cinema V

MPAA Rating: PG

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Costa-Gavras: Z


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Jorge Samprum and Costa-Gavras leave an unusual "disclaimer" at the beginning of Z that says, "Any similarity to actual events or persons living or dead is not coincidental. It is intentional."

Although the European setting is never specifically identified, the Greek music and the fact that director Costa-Gavras immigrated to France from his native Greece, clue us sufficiently that Z takes place in the cradle of democracy. Not that this matters since the volatile democracy that harbors right wing extremists, leading to a political assassination and governmental cover-up can universally apply to many situations. I saw this film the first time in 1969 without knowing any of the Greek history or being that familiar with the assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis and the subsequent military takeover. Back then I applied the situation to the United States, in the wake of the mysterious assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King and could see parallels.

After all, many of us going through the 1960s were paranoid enough to believe in the corruption of the U.S. government, and that any of us who protested were being tracked by the FBI and were certainly on Nixon's enemies list. Even without that context, Z continues to hold up. It's the strongest and tightest film about political intrigue yet constructed and will continue to relate to viewers as long as governments are political entities.

Z begins slowly inside a right wing political meeting that sounds familiar. We hear officials talking about preventing the "ideological mildew" of its youth following the "beatniks and pacifists" that have infected Italy and France and preventing them from believing in the evil "-isms"—Socialism, Anarchism, Imperialism, and Communism. They declare that they must "preserve the healthy parts of society" and inoculate their youth with proper thinking, but they will allow the opposition to speak out. This is a true democracy, and others must have the right to speak.

This group would not be so tolerant should the opposition gain enough power to actually win the election, however. The opposition has a popular leader, the Deputy (Yves Montand), a pacifist former Olympic champion, who is a practicing doctor and University professor, and an honest politician. He is favored to win the coming election, and has caught the fancy of the press, represented by the Photojournalist (Jacques Perrin).

As the Deputy arrives in town, his organizers are fighting a losing battle against the government officials, who have conspired to close off the largest available speaking hall. Instead, they offer a small hall across from the Deputy's hotel. Both the government and the Deputy play down the mysterious death threat that they have received earlier in the day.

The meeting is held the same time that the Bolshoi ballet holds the attention of the highest governmental leaders, and an angry crowd surrounds the meeting hall that is ready to jump any of the pacifist leaders. To maintain the peace are a large police force, but they mysteriously stand at attention and prevent nothing, not even when the Deputy is attacked as he enters the hall. "Why do the ideas we hold provoke such violence," he asks. "Why is peace so intolerable to them?"

During the speech, the tension mounts as the right wingers gather momentum and attack and attempt to kill Georges Pirou (Jean Bouise), thinking that the Deputy’s assistant is the main leader. This foreshadows the inevitable. Without police intervention and with the General (Pierre Dux) and the Colonel (Julien Guiomar) strangely disappearing into the crowd, the Deputy is left to his own devices to cross the street. He makes it only halfway, before a rapidly careening kamikaze truck bears down on him and strikes a fatal blow to his head.

This is when the intense Z becomes most interesting. The government worries about the political implications of the assassination while the Examining Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintigant) heroically sifts through the evidence to uncover widespread government complicity despite pressures to pass off the assassination as a simple accident. Along the way are some especially humorous moments that show the bumbling idiocy of the radical right group that leads to a memorable finish. You must wait until the postscript to learn the significance of the title, and this is memorable.

Long among my favorite films, Z has languished way under viewed despite winning the 1970 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In one of the rare times that the Academy got something right, it also won the award for Best Editing! Pretty amazing that a foreign film could penetrate the usually dimwitted and self-serving Academy Academy, but the editing is that outstanding. Z flows so well that I often forget that my French isn’t good enough to understand the action without reading the subtitles. For all the complexity of the political situation, we are always able to follow the intrigue and the characters, and much of this is due to Francoise Bonnot's expert editing. For great examples of effective jump cuts, watch the three crowd riot scenes closely. The camera follows the action closely, yet paints striking impressions of the overall chaos.

Costa-Garvas organizes the material brilliantly to maintain interest, gradually revealing new layers of intrigue as the plot unwinds Rashomon-like style. Yet none of the revelations feels like a cheap shot; the director pulls a few surprises, yet none totally shock. This all gives the film more credibility, making it more haunting—is it possible for democratic governments to contain this type of corruption? Years of political scandals have made Americans more cynical, but this has all been foreshadowed artistically in Z.

Also notable are a number of small touches. The brief flashbacks that Costa-Garvas shows us a disproportionately larger insight into the characters of the Deputy and his wife Helene (Irene Papas) than we'd expect from such a brief encounter. Papas is especially memorable with her strong, yet underplayed grief—all the more remarkable, considering that she’s only on the screen for about 5 minutes.

Z holds up as an extremely sophisticated political thriller. Since first viewing Costa-Garvas’ film in 1969, I have learned that the intentional similarity was aimed at Grecian politics, but the film is universal enough and timeless enough to relate to audiences in the 21st century. Besides, it's just one heck of a story that pulls you right in.


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