“Z” (1969)

As a note, the first three of these reviews were first published here on my tumblr page.

Directed by Costa-Gavras
Production Company: KG Productions
Language: French
Length: 127 Minutes

  • Audio commentary featuring film historian Peter Cowie
  • New interviews with Costa-Gavras and Coutard
  • Archival interviews with Costa-Gavras; producer-actor Jacques Perrin; actors Pierre Dux, Yves Montand, Irène Papas, and Jean-Louis Trintignant; and Vassilis Vassilikos, author of the book Z
  • Theatrical trailer

“Z” (1969), by Greek expatriate Costa-Gavras uses the 1963 assassination of leftist activist Gregoris Lambrakis as its base. (In fact, the film’s minimalist title is a reference to the Greek word ‘Zei’ – He lives.) The assassination of Lambrakis was covered up by the police and military. Although Lambrakis’s death inspired the Greek youth to push for progressive reforms in Greece, the movement was eventually stopped by the 1967 military coup d’état.

What makes “Z” a triumph is that the film resists any attempt to date itself and in order to do this it strips all proper nouns from the situation it revolves around. We are never told what country it takes place in. All of the main characters have their names taken away. Even the revered deputy leader of the opposition party, who stands in for Lambrakis, is never mentioned by name. The deputy is the revered figure, fantastically played by Yves Montand, but he goes without a name. In fact, only secondary characters are given names, and when they are, they only hurt their credibility. The only way you could know that this film was made in the late 1960’s is by the references to the “-isms” that dominated political society at the time, plus the sly insults to Russians and Americans.

Behind Costa-Gavras is a fantastic crew, particularly photographer Raoul Coutard. His camera work is always moving and gives unique perspectives to actions. During one sequence in the last half of the film, one of the deputy’s supporters is chased by a car. Instead of a close-up on his face, the camera is glued to the ground, allowing the viewer to imagine the frantic emotions on his face.

Costa-Gavras makes the over-two-hour film engaging by literally splitting it in two. The first half feels more like a traditional film, but once the deputy is assassinated and finally dies at the end of the first hour, everything goes into full gear. The magistrate completely takes over the film. His dead-pan, straight-up portrayal by Jean-Louis Trintignant contrasts the high-emotional charge that runs through every other character, Although he is a member of the government told to do the investigation, he never looks away from the military men who hover over him. The entire second hour of the film feels like a prototype for films like “All The President’s Men”, where the line between documentary and film is so thin, you can see through it.

Unlike most one-disc Criterion DVDs, “Z” is given a good-sized pallet of bonus features. They include an incredibly informative commentary by British historian Peter Cowie, a fascinating new 20-minute interview with Costa-Gavras and a new ten-minute interview with Coutard. Also included is the theatrical trailer, as well as archival interviews with the cast and crew. The book is only 16 pages, with just one essay by critic Armond White that puts the film in perspective, comparing it to Cota-Gavras’s other films and giving essential background that allows you to fully understand the film.

The Verdict: Buy it now. It’s an enjoyable political thriller with enough intrigue to require the lengthy running time.

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