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Z (1969)
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Z

Z (1969) begins with an unusual version of the standard disclaimer about resemblances between the movie and actual events or persons, living or dead - instead of being coincidental, a title card tells us, in this picture they're entirely on purpose. That doesn't mean the allegorical meanings of Z will be immediately clear to everyone who sees it; even in 1969, most moviegoers had to brush up on recent European politics if they wanted to grasp the film's full range of references. But no homework is necessary to appreciate the fast-paced suspense that made Costa-Gavras's political thriller an international box-office success. It was also an Academy Award nominee for best picture, director, and adapted screenplay - no non-English-speaking film had received a best-picture nod since Jean Renoir's masterpiece Grand Illusion (1937) three decades earlier - and it won Oscars® for best foreign-language movie and best film editing.

Based on a novel of the same title by Greek author Vasilis Vasilikos, itself based on recent upheavals in Greece's repressive political landscape, Z tells the slightly disguised story of events connected with the 1963 assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, an antiwar activist and liberal member of the Greek legislature. He was a physician and renowned athlete as well as a politician, and like his surrogate in the film, played by the politically minded actor Yves Montand, he was murdered by a pair of extremists who fractured his skull with a club. He died of brain injuries a few days later, and half a million people came to his funeral, which became a spontaneous rally against the right-wing government then in power, bringing about the prime minister's resignation and the rise of a progressive youth movement that influenced Greek politics for years to come.

A key figure after the assassination was a scrupulous legal examiner whose counterpart in Z is a Magistrate played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, winner of the Cannes best-actor prize. His investigation revealed links between far-right ideologues and elements of the military and police - discoveries so incendiary that he was later fired by the government (along with the nation's attorney general) and put in prison. All these events arose from the deep left-right split that had divided Greece since the end of World War II, leading to a 1967 coup by a military junta that remained in place until free elections returned in 1974. Made not long after the junta took power, Z was promptly banned by the regime.

As a politically concerned Greek who had lived and worked in France since the 1950s, Costa-Gavras closely followed developments in his native country. His first directorial efforts were genre pictures - Shock Troops, a 1967 war movie, and The Sleeping Car Murders (1965), a mystery - but his political imagination was aroused by Vasilikos's novel, and he turned Jorge Semprún's well-crafted screenplay into a movie that's accessible and entertaining as well as righteously indignant about the arrogance of power. Although he shot it mainly in Algeria, the story appears to take place in France, since the dialogue, newspapers, shop signs, and so on are in French; yet some details are clearly Greek, and the precise setting is never explicitly stated. This makes the politics seem less specifically Greek, lending a universal quality to the film's all-important moral and ethical themes.

Costa-Gavras immediately sets the tone of rapid-fire intrigue. Leftists organizing a political rally learn that their permit for an auditorium has been abruptly canceled, so they decide to move the event outdoors. Then they're told that their featured speaker, known as the Deputy, is the object of a death threat. Arriving on the scene, the Deputy refuses to be intimidated and walks fearlessly into the crowd; moments later he is clubbed into unconsciousness and whisked to a hospital, where surgery fails to save his life. While he's in the operating room the movie follows the aftermath of the attack, showing the weak police response and the continuing aggression of the right-wing thugs, who cause chaos everywhere they go.

The police coerce witnesses and distort evidence to support the official claim that the Deputy was struck and killed by a drunk driver. But a young photojournalist with a high-speed camera manages to identify the killers and connect them with top brass in the military and police. Using this information, an upright Magistrate pursues his investigation until the instigators and perpetrators are hauled into court; but the film's reverse-twist conclusion shows power defeating justice in the end. A brief epilogue gives a long list of culturally incorrect things that were banned by the military junta when it seized power - ranging from strikes to existentialism, from Sophocles to Samuel Beckett, from the Beatles to miniskirts. And yes, the letter Z, used by graffiti-spraying protesters as shorthand for "He is alive," referring to the martyred Deputy.

Z was only Costa-Gavras's third feature, but he was already a good action director with a flair for chases and fights, as when a left-wing organizer and an ultra-right killer have a harrowing struggle in the back of a speeding truck. The film also has a pitch-dark sense of humor that arrives in the very first scene, when a government ideologue hijacks a lecture on agricultural hygiene to attack progressive "mildew" that threatens the nation's entrenched interests. The most menacing thug, a grinning bully named Vago, is almost a slapstick character at times, and Costa-Gavras throws amusing red herrings into the plot, as when a flashback near the beginning suggests that the Deputy's marital fidelity might be more important to the story than his social and political views.

Much of the credit for Z goes to the brilliant team who worked alongside Costa-Gavras, including film editor Françoise Bonnot, composer Mikis Theodorakis, and master cinematographer Raoul Coutard, whose French New Wave trademarks - artfully plain lighting and edgy, restless camerawork - determine the picture's moods and emotions more than any other aspect of its design. The acting is meritorious as well, done by top-flight performers whose contributions blend into a seamless, organic ensemble: Montand as the Deputy, Irène Pappas as his wife, Trintignant as the Magistrate, Jacques Perrin as the photojournalist, Marcel Bozzufi and Renato Salvatori as the thuggish Vago and Yago, and others. Costa-Gavras has made other political films, such as the excellent 1982 drama Missing, with Jack Lemmon as a businessman searching for his son after Chile's military coup of 1973. But none has made a stronger impact than Z, which arrived at a propitious moment - in the late 1960s both the United States and Europe were ideologically torn in many ways - and remains a compelling drama with a cautionary message well worth heeding.

Director: Costa-Gavras
Producers: Jacques Perrin, Ahmed Rachedi
Screenplay: Jorge Semprún; based on the novel by Vassili Vassilikos
Cinematographer: Raoul Coutard
Film Editing: Françoise Bonnot
Production Design: Jacques D'Ovidio
Music: Mikis Theodorakis
With: Yves Montand (the Deputy), Irène Pappas (Hélène), Jean-Louis Trintignant (the Magistrate), François Perier (the District Attorney), Jacques Perrin (the photojournalist), Charles Denner (Manuel), Pierre Dux (the police general), Georges Géret (Nick), Bernard Fresson (Matt), Marcel Bozzufi (Vago), Julien Guiomar (the police colonel), Magali Noël (Nick's sister), Renato Salvatori (Yago), Habib Reda, Clotilde Joanno (Shoula), Maurice Baquet (the heroic mason), Sid Ahmed Agoumi, Allel El Mouhib, Hassan Hassani (the general's chauffeur), Gérard Darrieu (Barone), Jean Bouise (Georges Pirou).
C-127m. Letterboxed.

by David Sterritt

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