Z is a political exposť of the killing of a Greek politician, Grigoris Lambrakis, in 1967. In the subsequent investigation that implicated the ruling political party in his murder-conspiracy, the culprits took over the country and formed a military dictatorship. Unlike some other contemporary movies proclaiming injustice and decrying the evil of repressive regimes ( Medium Cool, Zabriskie Point), Z is exciting entertainment that slowly unwinds its portrait of right-wing villainy as a good mystery story. Enormously popular, it did a lot for liberal thought wherever it played. Savant at age 17 thought artworks like Lindsay Anderson's If... were far-out but impenetrably abstract - Z was an eye-opener that gave me a different perspective on political authoritarians who constantly evoked God and the Flag in their rhetoric.
The Deputy undergoes surgery in the hospital, but is not expected to live. His wife Helene (Irene Papas) is sent for and his aides try to uncover the truth. But while 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 is an autopsy of a political conspiracy that leaves the viewer with little room to stay neutral. One either has to consider it a total pack of lies, or give it an open mind and accept it as the unvarnished truth. Although the country involved is never directly identified, publicity accompanying the film established all the relevant facts. Composer Mikis Theodorakis was actually under house arrest in Greece to keep him from working, but he so believed in the film that he authorized the producers to adapt his earlier work. To get an unusual effect for a scene, they actually ran one of Theodorakis' tracks in reverse! The picture won an Oscar for best foreign film and best editing. It's interesting that for this basically French show, the country of origin was listed as Algeria.
Z makes a complex story very accessible by keeping its narrative very straightforward, and by making sure its characters are distinguished one from another physically. It helps in keeping who's who straight. A Mason who runs the meeting hall is only seen for a few seconds, but is easily recognizable when he later leaps aboard a speeding truck to nab the assassins. †1
The impressively-staged main scene is a rally in a square between a hotel and a meeting hall, where hundreds of the Deputy's supporters are set upon by a crowd of reactionary hooligans, while several squads of police stand and watch. Much of it is hand-held, beautifully shot by Raoul Coutard.
In a story where intrigue is all, the characters are sketched in swift strokes. Yves Montand is established as his country's possible next JFK, and wiped out after only 15 minutes on screen. By that time we've become familiar with a dozen faces of supporters, thugs and government officials. The ostensible 'star' of the second half of the show is the examining magistrate, sort of a governmental D.A., played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. He's never given a name, and barely seen onscreen until he's given the go-ahead to 'investigate'. Our attention is absorbed by his professionalism. 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.
The supporting cast also make very effective impressions, with little screen time. We barely get to see Irene Papas, but her behaviors while dodging newsmen and giving the cold shoulder to her husband's murderers, say a lot with few dialogue lines. When she picks up her husband's belongings from his hotel room, she expresses the character of her marriage in just a few despairing gestures.
The audience with which I saw Z when it was new, were Air Force Airmen at Norton A.F.B. - not exactly a liberal audience. They laughed when the tight-laced Trintignant had to correct himself, and cheered when he started handing out the indictments. The pompous guilt of the conspirators creates a few minutes of relief, as we see them squirm even more guiltily. But Costa-Gavras and history have a sting in the tail of Z that leaves audiences breathless and perfectly poised to start paying attention to the international news. Z was easily the most influential political film of the late '60s, because its message was accessible to so many politically complacent moviegoers.
Wellspring's DVD of Z is a very good transfer of this classic, which has shown up many a time in inadequate presentations, often dubbed poorly into English. The 16:9 encoding is good and the picture's soft colors well-presented. It actually looks better than the grainy print we saw when it was new. The subtitles are particularly well-done - it was a real chore to read so many titles so fast in the theater.
The best extra is a French-language commentary by Costa-Gavras, that Wellspring has backed up with its own subtitle track. The director explains most of the details above and talks about how one of the actors, Jacques Perrin, found financing for the film at the last moment after his French backers bowed out (rather like the owner of the meeting hall in the movie?). A separate video interview with Costa-Gavras and author Vassili Vassilikos is rather dark-looking, but puts faces and personalities to names long memorized. Some text filmographies and a trailer are also included, along with a slow-paced restoration demonstration, that shows, Criterion-style, how much frame damage had to be cleaned up digitally.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The Mason is a great little character, and one of the smarter ones.
Obviously a big supporter of the Deputy, he's willing to get into a scrap to protect him, and leaps
aboard the speeding truck to attack the assassins. When the police nab them all, he has sense enough
to know that the authorities will stop protecting him and perhaps even kill him when they find out he's
a witness to the attack. Most of the main 'intellectual' heroes, the Deputy included, don't have the
kind of sense to protect themselves.