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The late 1960s were awash with left-wing filmmaking, very little of which was distributed in the United States. Most documentaries about oppressive regimes in South America or Europe were shown on or near college campuses. Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers had a sizeable release back in 1965 and soon thereafter became a staple of campus showings, where it drew student interest for the next ten years.
By far the most successful director of committed political thrillers, Costa-Gavras resisted direct agit-prop filmmaking in favor of entertainments that would appeal to large audiences. His Missing, a dramatization of the U.S. State Department's complicity in a coup in Chile, was produced and distributed by Universal Pictures in 1982. But Costa-Gavras' 1969 Z is his most celebrated work and perhaps the single most compelling political film since John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath. An undisguised account of an assassination in Greece that precipitated an oppressive military coup, Z opened a lot of eyes to the realities of power politics.
Taken from Vassili Vassilikos' popular novel, Z restages the events as an action thriller. Although no country is named an opening title card announces that resemblances to current events are intentional.
A doctor, senator and opposition leader in a democratic ''Mediterranean" monarchy, The Deputy (Yves Montand) arrives by plane to speak to his supporters about his hopes for the country. The ruling party and its military police are committed to discrediting the Deputy as a communist, and eliminating him before the next elections. Top security operatives insure that the Deputy is deprived of his meeting hall; he must speak to a tiny group while large crowds outside listen on loudspeakers. Thugs are brought in to harass the Deputy's supporters, and criminals Vago and Yago (Marcel Bozzuffi & Renato Salvatori) are set up to kill him in a faked accident. As the Deputy lies near death, his estranged wife Helene (Irene Papas) is sent for and his aides try to uncover the truth. Although the generals and colonels assure the public that the 'incident' was a simple drunken driving accident, a photojournalist (Jacques Perrin) easily uncovers the truth by interviewing witnesses on his own. The government's examining magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) has been handpicked to declare the case an accident, but every bit of evidence points to a trail of murder and conspiracy ... that reaches up the government ranks to the very top.
Z stands out from other political conspiracy films in that it is not a paranoid picture. The liars and murderers who want to turn the monarchy into a dictatorship boldly exercise their power right out in the open. Believing they have control of public opinon, the security officials coerce shopkeepers to serve as street thugs by threatening to revoke their business licences. It takes little or no probing to prove that a general is lying when he claims to have no connection to a right-wing civilian terror squad. The Deputy's close associates are intimidated and beaten; an impressively edited action scene shows a car trying to run one of them down in broad daylight.
Most paranoid thrillers make the viewer feel powerless. Witnesses disappear as the political gangsters enforce their will. Z goes in the exact opposite direction. A photojournalist (Jacques Perrin, also one of the film's producers) at first seems an opportunist papparazzi type, but is soon documenting the government's trail of crime and deception. Even better is the government's own Examining Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a principled prosecutor assigned to lend a veneer of legitimacy to the case. To his superiors' surprise, the Magistrate honestly pursues the truth. He begins by shouting at people who mention anything like a conspiracy, before the mounting evidence starts to accumulate. Half an hour later, his own clerk has to correct him when he himself refers to the 'incident' as a murder.
Director Costa-Gavras keeps the pace fast and the characters interesting; his direction has the nervous feeling of an action movie. Charles Denner (The Bride Wore Black) and Bernard Fresson (The French Connection II) are the Deputy's overworked aides. As the distraught wife Irene Papas (Zorba the Greek) expresses the character of her marriage in just a few despairing gestures; she says a lot with few dialogue lines, giving her husband's murderers the cold shoulder. Marcel Bozzuffi (The French Connection) is excellent as a slimy killer eager to get his name in the paper. Pierre Dux's hateful general laces his speeches about his political terror methods with analogies to "antibodies that fight society's enemies"; his quotes come back to haunt him in the Magistrate's interviews with thugs who claim they were nowhere near the scene of the
The French government was not pleased with Z, which directly implicates the United States as a supporter of the oppressive Greek regime. When his French backers bowed out, producer Jacques Perrin found financing in Algeria, officially making the film an Algerian production. Costa-Gavras' art directors were able to transform the European sections of Algiers into a reasonable-looking Greek city. Z was simply too prestigious to be suppressed and proved a solid art film hit in the U.S.. It won numerous international awards, including Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film and Editing. Also celebrated was Mikis Theodorakis' stunning film score. As the composer was at the time a prisoner of the Greek regime, he granted use of music recorded for an earlier project. When Costa-Gavras couldn't find a cue appropriate for one scene, his editors simply ran one track backwards.
Z frequently reminds us that what we're seeing actually happened. After the triumph of the finish, a rapid epilogue explains that the military staged a coup and systematically eliminated most of the film's protagonists. A scrolling list names just a few things forbidden under the new regime ... books, the music of the Beatles, and the letter "Z", which in Greek also translates as "He Lives".
Criterion's DVD of Z far outclasses Wellspring's earlier 2002 disc, with a restored transfer supervised and approved by cinematographer Raoul Coutard. The image is sharp and the colors bright.
Peter Cowie provides the audio commentary, and new inteviews have been recorded with Costa-Gavras and Coutard. An archival TV show provides brief interview bites with Jacques Perrin, Yves Montand (who is on screen for only a few minutes), Irene Papas, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Pierre Dux, who seems amused that he's playing such a despicable villain. Author Vassilis Vissilikos also appears for a too-short interview. An effective original trailer rounds out the program. Criterion's disc producer is Abbey Lustgarten.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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