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
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
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
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.