In an unnamed country the eve of a left-wing political rally causes a lot of distress: the meeting hall’s owner, intimidated, evicts the supporters; the police, invoking bureaucracy, try to stop them from finding a new place to rally in; a man hears an assassination attempt against the left-wing candidate; and several ministers, gathered in a room, listen to a lecture about how foreign ideas have destroyed their country’s moral fabric. The rally has suffused the country with an atmosphere of fear and anxiety. Something is about to happen and does happen when the left-wing candidate (played by Yves Montand) is struck down by a man driving by in a van, in plain sight of the police.
An inquest ensues and so comes to life one of the most fascinating thrillers in the history of cinema. Inspired by Vasilis Vasilikos’ novel of the same name (which in turn is based on the 1967 military coup in Greece), and co-written with Jorge Semprún, Greek director Costa-Gavras shows how a shaky democracy slowly turns into a ruthless police state. The inquest, expected to quickly close with the verdict of a drunk driving accident, turns into an embarrassment for the police and the government when an incorruptible magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) investigates more than expected and starts exposing a conspiracy.
As someone who admires and follows Costa-Gavras’ work, I think his career can be divided into two periods: his films before Missing and the films after. It’s not a division of quality (although I think he was never the same after he shifted to making films in English; still Missing is doubtless a masterpiece), but of dramatic focus: his later films are character studies; his earlier films rely on ensemble casts. Z is the study of a whole society, from ministers to journalists to policemen to average men and women. Most characters are unnamed and the magistrate comes closest to a leading character.
The film is thus free to explore the story from several perspectives: on the one hand we have the high-ranking officers controlling the police, organizing secret groups to beat up peaceful protesters and disrupt rallies, withholding information, intimidating witnesses, and protecting murderers. On the other hand we have a small group of people, supporters and a journalist (Jacques Perrin), but also civic-minded civilians, trying to bring the murderers to justice.
Although the film has no leading character, I think viewers will quickly cotton to Trintignant, who steals the show in his short and restrained but heroic role. Always hidden behind dark glasses, his character looks just like an indifferent bureaucrat, cautious of using the word ‘murder’ in his report. But his outward indifference masks his devotion to truth.
When it came out in 1969, critics and audiences greeted Z with enthusiasm. The Academy, for the first time in its history, nominated a film simultaneously for Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film (it won the latter). Costa-Gavras’ secret was telling this devastating dramatic story as a suspenseful thriller. Françoise Bonnot’s Oscar-winning editing helps create an intense experience for the viewer, playing around with the timeline, shifting events back and forth in time and showing them from several perspectives, sometimes with subtle distortions, to reflect the workings of memory.
A final aspect of the film I have to praise is the music of composer Mikis Theodorakis. When Greece became a right-wing regime in 1967, Theodorakis, a staunch opponent, was arrested and his music banned. Under house arrest he composed the score for this film and then had it smuggled out of the country. The story of the score’s making of should grant it a place in film music history alone, but Theodarakis is of the most admired Greek composers of the 20th century, and the score is also a masterpiece in itself; it mixes popular songs, dramatic and suspenseful themes and military marches, bringing much excitement and pathos to the film.
Z is not an easy film to watch. For anyone who loves freedom, many scenes will feel like vicious punches to the stomach. Several times I shuddered at the injustices being committed with impunity. The film is not a celebration of freedom and truth, but rather an elegy for these important but fragile values. Costa-Gavras turned the tragedy of his country into a grim parable about something that can happen anywhere. Forty years later Z remains as relevant as if it had been released yesterday.
Cast: Yves Montand, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jacques Perrin, Irene Pappas
Ruuntime: 127 min