Dir: Costa-Gavras, 1969. Starring: Yves Montand, Irene Papas, Jean-Louis Trintignant. Foreign.

Once upon a time a little French film shot in Algeria by a Greek director became a massive international hit, winning a bunch of awards including a couple of Oscars. Z may actually be left wing propaganda, but it plays brilliantly as a fast paced piece of suspense pulp. Oh the 1960s! What an amazing time for filmmakers and film watching, you were. In the docu realism tradition of The Battle Of Algiers, the unnamed country of Z may look a lot like Greece or even Italy, but it could anywhere. The shooting at Kent State was just two years away, and much of the world appeared to be in political turmoil. Z plays like a "how to" guide for both sides: how to start a left-wing revolution and, for the people in charge of keeping the status quo, how to squash it.

Z opens with a title card reading, "Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is INTENTIONAL." This tells you that director Costa-Gavras is willing to wear his politics (or his bias) on his sleeve. The military dictators are worried about political protests from “beatniks” and foreigners, and they commit to shutting down any outside agitation. As a left wing political leader known as both Deputy and Z (the all-time great French actor Yves Montand) prepares for a rally for nuclear disarmament, while the Russian ballet performs across the street, Government thugs carrying bats continue to harass and beat his supporters. Trying to cross the street the Deputy is walloped by a guy with a baseball bat - though fake witnesses say a drunk driver hit him - he sustains injuries that eventually kill him.

His grieving widow (the great Greek actress Irene Papas) comes to town to help keep the cause alive. Meanwhile an Inspector (another major French great, Jean-Louis Trintignant) looks into the case; though the government pushes him to cover up their crimes, he proves to be dedicated to truth as he continues to dig further. Will he have the nerve to bring down his superiors (a la Watergate)? Or will this just be another case of the Government easily shutting down its opposition?

For such an overtly political film, Z is still an exciting thrill ride. It’s aided by a very cool '60s vibe Euro score by Mikis Theodorakis (Zorba The Greek). Also, though there is much talk the film seems to move briskly thanks to the carefully crafted editing by Françoise Bonnot (Melville’s Army Of Shadows and more recently Across The Universe). And most importantly it was shot brilliantly by the great French new-wave cameraman Raoul Coutard (Breathless, Alphaville, Band of Outsiders, etc.). Though director Costa-Gavras was young in his career he wisely put together a group of all-stars in front of and behind the camera.

For Costa-Gavras the success of Z made him an instant brand name for international political films. He had another big critical hit with the equally important film, State of Siege, also starring Montand and still not available on DVD in the US (hello Criterion, this would be the prefect for your company to take on). Actually other than Z most of his non-English language films have not gotten proper releases here. Later in ‘82 he had another smash with the Jack Lemmon/Sissy Spacek drama Missing. Since then his English language flicks have ranged from forgettable (Betrayed) to just lame (Mad City). But with Z Costa-Gavras somehow caught lightning in a bottle. Based on a real life Greek political corruption investigation in the early '60s it’s the perfect story for the intense thriller. Without a doubt future directors have studied Z; films as diverse as Mississippi Burning, Bloody Sunday, and The Baader Meinhof Complex all show the influence of Z. Costa-Gavras may have made the best film of its genre. Z is just as relevant today, maybe technology has changed, but it’s no coincidence that recent political dissent and uprisings in the Middle East looked a lot like Z.


Z won two Oscars for Best Editing and Best Original Score. It was nominated for an additional three Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 9, 2011 4:15pm
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