Monday, 24 January 2011


Directed by Costa-Gavras

France 1969

Winner of two Oscars in 1970 (for best foreign picture, best editing) and awards at Cannes in 1969 Z is the film that took the world by storm. Even today, is still highly regarded as one of the strongest films about political intrigue yet constructed. Z is a stunningly filmed political thriller with a complex criminal investigation at the heart but with unique political commitment that would define its director career.

There is 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." And although location of the action is never specified (the film itself was made in Algeria), there are hints that it is Greece in the early 1960s. The film is based on the novel by Vassili Vassilikos and parallels the real life assassination in 1963 of Gregorios Lambrakis, a popular public figure known for his left-wing views. Not that this really matters since the right wing extremists, political assassinations and governmental cover-ups can universally apply to many countries and situations. Costa-Gavras eloquently captured the chaotic and violent nature of the political unrest prevalent in the 1960s.

Z begins with a right wing political meeting, we hear officials talking about preventing the "a mildew of the mind" of its youth following the "beatniks and pacifists"; and all sorts of "-isms"—socialism, anarchism, imperialism, and communism, that are infecting the country. They declare that they must "preserve the healthy parts of society" and inoculate their youth with proper thinking.They do however have a strong opposition with 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 favoured to win the coming election, and has caught the attention of the press, represented by the photojournalist (Jacques Perrin). As the Deputy arrives to an unnamed town to give a speech advocating nuclear disarmament, its organizers are fighting a battle against the government officials, who have conspired to close off the largest available speaking hall and instead offered a much smaller one. As logistical problems are appearing out of nowhere it is obvious that there have been attempts to prevent the speech's delivery. The tension mounts and angry crowd surrounds the meeting hall, together with local thugs hired to cause trouble among Deputy's followers. 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?" After giving his speech Deputy is attacked again. As he crosses the street from the hall, a delivery truck speeds past him and a man strikes him down with a club. The injury eventually proves fatal.

This is when Z becomes most interesting. It is already clear to the viewer that the police forced the conclusion that the victim was simply run over by a drunk driver. But Costa-Gavras organizes the material brilliantly to maintain interest, gradually revealing new layers of intrigue. The government's attempts to cover up the assassination are investigated by a sharp-eyed journalist and a magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintigant) determined to uncover the truth. Slowly and heroically they gather sufficient evidence to prove widespread government complicity and indict not only the two right-wing militants who committed the murder, but also four high-ranking military police officers. Along the way are some especially humorous moments that show the idiocy of the radical right wing.

But then comes the most traumatic finale. Instead of the expected positive outcome, the prosecutor is mysteriously removed from the case, key witnesses die under suspicious circumstances, the assassins, though convicted of murder, receive (relatively) short sentences, the officers receive only administrative reprimands, the Deputy's close associates die or are deported, and the photojournalist is sent to prison for disclosing official documents. The strength of the military dictatorship is stronger and the fear of the unknown prevails. As the closing credits roll, there's a list the things banned by the junta. This is when, at the very end, the viewer learns the significance of the film's title, and it is memorable.

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