Director of Photography:
Running time: 127 minutes
It might be dialogue-heavy and overtly ideological in its unashamedly anti-establishment approach to historical events, but director Costa-Gavras’s Z is passionate, personal, and pushes the envelope the way very few films dare to. Based on events in the director’s native Greece in the early 1960s, where freedom of expression was threatened, and democracy ultimately supplanted by dictatorship, the film is a direct depiction of the assassination of a Greek political figure in 1963 and the subsequent investigation that shook the government. The title, which stands for “ZEI”, meaning “He lives”, refers to the Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis, who was assassinated under circumstances almost identical to those shown in this film.
The opening credits make clear that the film is not in the business of subtle allegories: “Any resemblance to actual events, to persons dead or alive, is no coincidence — it is deliberate.” One doesn’t have to dig very deep to notice the parallels between the historic events in Greece in 1963 and the blood-curdling hunger for control and suppression of a pacifist opposition that Costa-Gavras puts up on the screen.
Yves Montand appears as the anonymous “Doctor”, probably a reference to Lambrakis’s profession as a physician, a calm but determined man who is set to deliver a major speech against the bomb – he obviously has some influence in the public sphere, because the government puts every possible obstacle in his way to ensure that the venue for his speech can accommodate as few people as possible. He has a small group of very loyal supporters around him, including Manuel (Charles Denner) and Georges (Jean Bouise).
Though the film is set in an unnamed city where all the characters speak French, the Greek music on the soundtrack, by left-wing exile Mikis Theodorakis, leaves no doubt about the film’s real-world underpinnings. Costa-Gavras also cast the famous Irene Papas as the Doctor’s wife – a casting decision that has theoretical soundness but since she is barely given any dialogue, her performance becomes a bit schmaltzy and seems out of place given the aggressive nature of the story.
The two characters at the centre of physical violence in the film are named Vago and Yago, and the former is portrayed as a real creepy fellow with suggestions of homosexual paedophilia. At the same time, the police force is not only heavily anti-communist (though they have no objection to anybody attending the Bolshoï ballet), but anti-semite and anti-Chinese. The man at the top is the Chief of Police (Pierre Dux), whose disgust for the peaceful opposition protesters is equalled by the violence with which he attempts to suppress them. Comparing their “ideological illness” to mildew, he states in the opening scene that the “treatment of men with appropriate solutions is indispensable”, and thereby pre-emptively washes his hands of all wrongdoing.
The person tasked with establishing the truth is the inquest judge, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, who learns both sides of the story and needs to weigh his own sense of justice against the possibility of prosecuting persons at the highest levels of government. Working separately but with the same goal of finding the truth is the photojournalist played by a very youthful Jacques Perrin (here he reminded me of Diego Luna).
This highly ideological film is certainly much more willing to take sides than a film such as Oliver Stone’s JFK (about another assassination in 1963), and yet it easily ropes us in to the political malevolence and sinister conspiracy taking place in a foreign country. Director of Photography Raoul Coutard, known for his work with a filmmaker who would like to see himself as politically savvy yet producing films of cerebral rather than entertainment value, Jean-Luc Godard, records the events with a sense of intimacy that produces images both informative and deliciously suggestive. Two significant examples are the arrival of Papas at the hospital, when past and present alternate in fragments (the result of a certain kind of jump cuts called “faux raccords”), making her own confusion very visible and teasing us with moments from her life with Montand, and the final sequence of close-ups on uniform medals and ribbons that build to a very satisfying conclusion.
It is refreshing to see a director who goes big, both ideologically and cinematically, and Costa-Gavras succeeds in capturing our attention on both counts. Z is a spectacular film that provides a window on events in Europe in the 1960s (don’t forget that the film was made around the time the student riots shook Paris in May 1968) and reminds us, as did Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls, that authoritarian regimes find imagination suspect, for it signals a lack of control on their part.