Criterion // 1969 // 127 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // October 27th, 2009
Any similarity to real persons and events is not coincidental. IT IS INTENTIONAL.
The line above, printed on the screen at the beginning of Z, in many ways sums up the heart of the film: defiant, outraged, daring the viewer to deny the truth of what is about to be shown.
When it was released in 1969, Constantin Costa-Gavras' film became an instant, international sensation. At Cannes, Jean-Louis Trintignant won the award for best actor and Costa-Gavras won the Jury Prize (Z was nominated for the Golden Palm, but lost to Lindsay Anderson's If...). The New York Film Critics named Z that year's Best Film, and Costa-Gavras Best Director. The National Society of Film Critics also named it Best Film, and it was the second foreign language film to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award and the first to be nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film (which it won).
Z was released on DVD in 2002 by Fox Lorber. That version, which sported a fair transfer and a couple of good extras, is now out of print. Criterion's new release offers a vastly improved transfer (approved by cinematographer Raoul Coutard) along with some outstanding supplemental material.
The Deputy (Yves Montand, Jean de Florette), the charismatic leader of a leftist group, is due to speak at a large rally promoting nuclear disarmament. The right-wing ruling party wants the Deputy silenced. The Deputy's supporters are having trouble finding a place for the rally; their first venue reneges on the contract, and they are turned down by every other place they approach. When they hear there is a plot afoot to assassinate the Deputy, they go to the authorities, who claim to be concerned, but refuse to take action.
They find a space for the rally, but it's far too small to accommodate the crowd of both supporters and opponents. After making his speech, the Deputy, leaves and is beaten on the head by two thugs in a car, in plain view of the police and some of the government officials. He lingers for a while, then dies. Initially, his death is declared an accident, and when the leftists attempt to expose it as a murder, they are accused of being opportunists who are lying to further their cause. The Deputy's wife (Irene Pappas, The Trojan Women) is summoned; she is devastated by her husband's death, but at first seems willing to accept the story that it was an accident. However, a young reporter (Jacques Perrin, Donkey Skin) tells her that the Deputy was murdered by the state, and he believes he can dig up information to prove it.
To keep things appearing to be on the up-and-up, a right-wing Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant, The Conformist) is called to investigate. Initially, he takes at face value the right-wing officials' account that this was an accident. But as new evidence and witnesses start turning up, the Magistrate looks more closely, and the officials become concerned: Is their fate in the hands of a man with a conscience?
Although Costa-Gavras does not give his character a name other than "the Deputy," the doomed leftist leader here is quite obviously modeled after Gregoris Lambrakis, a Greek politician and activist whose 1963 assassination is re-created in the film. Costa-Gavras also never names the country where the film takes place, but he adds enough visual touches that the audience understands that it is supposed to be Greece.
Even for audiences who weren't familiar with the story of Lambrakis, Z was an especially timely film. Two years before its release, the world was witness to the military junta in Greece and the Arab-Israeli Six Day War, and the student riots in Paris the year before. Americans had fresh memories of the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago and were inundated with images of the protests against the Vietnam war, as well as the TV news coverage of the war itself. With its scenes of young idealists fighting in the street against government-hired thugs, Z captured quite perfectly the unrest that was so much a part of the '60s and the disillusion that many felt toward their government and justice systems.
Watching Z today, it is by no means a mere historical relic. It is an exciting and complex film, and a deeply emotional viewing experience.
Costa-Garvas was born and raised in Greece, but went to France to study film. He was shattered by the political upheaval in his country, and Z is a project of anger, an outraged cry for justice. The director understood that a straightforward retelling would not reach as broad an audience, so he fashioned his film like a Hollywood thriller. With its stunning, Oscar-winning editing and pulse pounding score by Mikos Theodorakis, Z set the standard for thrillers -- political and otherwise -- that came after it.
Montand and Pappas, as the Deputy and his wife, are listed as the stars, but both get relatively little screen time; even so, each makes an indelible impression. Montand, with his earthy good looks and compelling presence, is just right as the charismatic leader. Pappas has only a few lines of dialogue as his grieving yet outraged wife, but her strong face and large, haunted eyes reveal emotions beyond words. In one scene, she must walk through a room while being greeted by the men who'd ordered her husband's execution; her disdain for them is conveyed without a single line of dialogue. It is an absolutely riveting performance. Perrin is excellent as the callow but determined journalist, as is Trintignant as the Magistrate who is surprised to find himself investigating the government that employs him. Also making an impression is Marcel Bozzuffi as one of the thugs, a psychotic and manipulative child molester. Bozzuffi would become an eternal part of American pop culture a couple of years later for his role as another assassin, in The French Connection -- that's Bozzuffi being gunned down by Gene Hackman on the poster.
Costa-Gavras does not shy away from statements about political opportunism on both sides. The government officials, of course, express outrage over the killing, even though they ordered it, and fear reprisals if the truth comes out. But the Leftists are also looking to capitalize on the event, arguing over the best way to spin it to further their cause. Even the reporter who uncovers the plot isn't particularly heroic; he makes no secret that he's doing this to sell a story and promote himself.
The weapons-of-choice for the thugs are clubs and cars, better to make an attack look like an accident. No one -- not the police, not the assassins -- ever uses a gun, not even shooting in the air to break up a protest. This might be the only modern-day film about a paramilitary government and a political assassination in which not a single bullet is fired. What we get instead is far more effective -- primal, brutal, and horrifying. The Deputy's death played out over and over, sometimes as it actually happened, sometimes to show the "official" version. In the end, we learn that justice is hard fought -- and fragile.
Criterion again comes through with a terrific disc. The transfer is spectacularly clean and crisp, amazing for a 40-year-old film. The original mono track sounds just great. Even though this is a single-disc set, extras are plentiful.
If, like me, you're not up on the post-WW2 political history of Greece, the commentary by film historian Peter Cowie is essential listening. While he occasionally points out the obvious, this is overall a rich, informative track filled with background about the politics of the film, as well as a lot of information about Costa-Garvas and the making of Z. It's an outstanding track that really adds to the viewing experience.
In addition, we get a 2009 interview with Costa-Gavras about the film and its history, and a 2009 interview with cinematographer Raoul Coutard about his work with Costa-Gavras on Z. The disc also contains a trio of archival interviews (apparently from French television) shot in the '60s. The first features Vasilis Vasilikos, who wrote the novel on which the film is based; the second, Costa-Gavras, Montand, Trintignant, and Papas; and the third, Costa-Gavras, Perrin (who was also a producer on Z), and Pierre Dux, who plays a right-wing general. Rounding out the set is a trailer and a booklet containing an essay by critic Armond White.
Z is a great film, an exciting thriller, and a devastating look at political corruption that has lost none of its relevance in the 40 years since it was released. Criterion gives us a top-notch release. Essential viewing, highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Archival Content