I was reminded this morning by DVD Beaver’s Gary Tooze about the 10.27 arrival of Z, the landmark 1969 political thriller from director Costa-Gavras, on a Criterion Collection DVD. A restored high-def digital transfer. Audio commentary featuring film historian Peter Cowie. New interviews with Costa-Gavras and dp Raoul Coutard. And a booklet essay by Armond White, among other extras.
It’s one of the best political pulse-pounders ever made, and one of the few to make my eyes water over. It’s deeply engrossing for the taut writing and crackerjack performances, the urgent docu-style realism throughout, and especially the emotional inspiration it delivers at the finale. I’m figuring there must be at least a couple of generations of serious filmgoers who’ve never caught it, or perhaps have never heard of it. Whichever way (and even for those who saw it in theatres 40 years ago), this is really and truly a disc to settle into.
Based on a 1966 novel of the same name by Vassilis Vassilikos, Z is a slightly fictionalized, largely truthful account of events surrounding the assassination of democratic Greek politician Gregoris Lambrakis in 1963.
An ensemble piece with a central through-line, Z is mainly about the political awakening of an investigating magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who gradually comes to realize that Lambrakis (Yves Montand) wasn’t accidentally killed by a hit-and-run driver but clubbed to death by a right-wing thug on behalf of the Greek military, who eventually took over and ran Greece junta-style from ‘1969 to ’74.
But of course it’s also a metaphor for all struggles — now, then, forever — between rightist strong-man governments and thoughtful, truth-seeking, power-to-the-liberal-wing types.
Irene Pappas costars as Zambrakis’s wife, but the lifeblood of Z is in the vigorous performances by numerous secondary performers.
Trintignant’s investigator is based on Christos Sartzetakis, who years later was appointed President of Greece by democratically-elected parliamentarians.
“Everybody said there is no love story, there is no central character, the story of a Greek senator who is killed….who really cares about it?,” Costa-Gavras said in a recent interview. And so forth. There was nothing looking like a usual movie: there are so many people in the movie, there is no one character from the beginning to the end.”
Shot in 1968 and ’69, Z “was made as a kind of protest against the colonists in Greece,” he explained. “All Greeks out of Greece at that time, they tried to do something about it – riots and whatever, and signed petitions, and the only thing I could do is to make a movie. When I did the script, all the actors you saw accepted to play in it, but no producer or distributor would give a penny to make the movie.
“I had a grant from the French government…and with that I was going around, and everybody refused except for the Algerians, who said, ‘Okay, you can do it here, but we don’t have any money to give to you. We give you all the facilities to shoot in the street, and some technicians.’ Almost all of the major actors [and] myself [made the film] without being paid.
“And we did the movie for $400,000, and it was amazing, because during the shooting, we asked two journalists to come and see us and to write some articles. Nobody came. And when the movie came out, the first week it did very poorly, because a lot of people wrote about the political content of the movie, and people were a little scared about the political movies, you know. But little by little, the movie was playing for something like 45 weeks in Paris. It was a huge success in Paris and around the world, which was a big surprise also, because nobody was believing or accepting [at first]. So that was the story of Z.”
Z won the 1969 Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize, and Trintignant was named Best Actor. It also won New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Film and Best Director, and the 1970 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar along with an Oscar for Best Editing (i.e., Fran√ßoise Bonnot). Z was the first film to be nominated for Academy Awards both for Best Foreign Language Film and for Best Picture.
The film ends ironically with a French TV reporter explaining that despite Trintignant’s character having indicted the Zambrakis killers, all the good guys were subsequently dismissed, busted or disappeared, and the assassins, though convicted of murder, had their sentences reduced, and the military officers involved received only administrative reprimands.
As the end-credits section begins (but before listing the cast and crew), Costa-Gavras listed things banned by the Greek junta. They included peace movements, strikes, labor unions, long hair on men, the Beatles, other modern and popular music (“la musique populaire”), Sophocles, Leo Tolstoy, Aeschylus, writing that Socrates was homosexual, Eugene Ionesco, Jean-Paul Sartre, Anton Chekhov, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Mark Twain, Samuel Beckett, the bar association, sociology, international encyclopedias, free press, and new math.
Also banned was the letter Z, which was used as a symbolic reminder that Lambrakis (and by extension the spirit of resistance) lives.