Z (1969)


Directed by Costa-Gavras

Written by Jorge Semprun (based on the novel by Vasilis Vassilikos)

Starring: Yves Montand, Irene Papas, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jacques Perrin

Trivia: Z won the 1970 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Z is a Greek political thriller that tells a story that encapsulates the hope and tragedy of the 20th Century.  Based on real events that occurred in Greece during the 1960s, the film also has a resonance for today, specifically, how does authoritarianism work and how can it be resisted? Shot like a documentary, I’ve seen few movies use space in the way Z managed to accomplish, high stakes drama plays out over a vast urban landscape.

The story begins with a leftist politician “Z” (Montand) preparing to give a speech that will demand the superpowers disarm their nuclear weapons.  In the midst of constant death threats, hostility from the authoritarian regime, and right wing protestors who await him, he decides to go on with the speech. Before the sequence we see the ruling class of military officers planning to stomp out the reformers, comparing them to mildew and vermin.  After the speech, Z is assaulted and mortally wounded by assassins. And that’s only the first 20 minutes.

After the ensuing chaos an investigation of the assassination begins. The lead magistrate (Trintignant) is honest in his search for the truth. As he gathers information all leads to collusion between the ruling authorities and right wing militants.  The magistrate’s poise and objectivity is everything one would expect from a dutiful government official – despite the corruption surrounding him.

Z is a devastating film about brute power and its machinations  It reveals how authoritarians hide behind virtue and morality as it allies with corrosive forces.  Stirring up anger through manipulative propaganda, they tacitly condone the use of violence to silence their opponents.  Yet there are fine examples of citizenry in the bravery from the journalist to the depiction of everyday life in Greece.

Many films were influenced by Z,  political movies set in a gritty urban landscape, such as The French Connectionand The Killing Fields.  Spielberg cited Z as an influence on his 2005 film Munich.

Although it was made at the height of the Cold War, a world with two superpowers vying for influence, there are echoes for the 21st Century.  Anger, frustration, and cynicism are forces driving modern politics and charlatans are exploiting those negative emotions.  Yet there’s also an idealism to Z that’s just as powerful, just like today. Where the carousal stops, no one knows.

features many moments of great cinema: the treachery of the assassins, the sense of mission from the journalists, and the depiction of every day life in Greece.  A bleak requiem on the 1960s, Z remains an essential political text, a history of the 20th Century in microcosm.



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