When the old becomes new again, we forget what was wrong with the old. This happens quite a bit lately with DVD releases of movies. Films that were reviled or scoffed at or viewed with disdain or impatience upon their initial release are now heralded as masterworks, or at least as refutations of the current dreck. A similar circumstance will probably greet the re-release of Z, Costa-Gavras's political thriller from 1969, which is hitting the screens as a prelude to its DVD release later this year.
Z was a hit back then. But its success was in large part due to the fact that a company called Cinema V labored mightily to create a superbly dubbed version of the film, which was originally in French. This Greece-set drama was also shot in Algeria, with mostly French stars, so its melange of actors and locations were somewhat smoothed out by the US-ears friendly dubbing. The version in release now, however, is in the original language, though one hopes that the DVD will also include the dubbed version, if only as an historical artifact of great significance in a transitional time in American cinematic tastes.
Today, Z is notable for its imposition of a thriller format on what is essential a series of political confrontations. The memorable set pieces include a man fleeing a careening malevolent, a montage sequence at the end wherein a succession of generals are indicted for murder in defiance of the investigator's presumed compliance with a ruling government seeking to whitewash the crime, and a funny moment when this investigator, who has been insisting that the crime be called an incident, himself slips up and calls it an assassination, unconsciously overwhelmed by the evidence countering his operating theory.
Costa-Gravas was a political exile transplanted to France where he made a couple of thrillers before setting out to adapt Vassili Vassilikos's novel about the event that came to be called the Lambrakis Affair. Z, in Greek graffiti, means "He Lives," the "z" being short for the word "zei."
Gregoris Lambrakis was a Greek pacifist political leader who was attacked on May 22, 1963 in Thessaloniki when he was knocked on the head by someone in a passing mini-truck after giving a speech. He died five days later. Lambrakis was a teaching doctor and a former athlete whose politics listed leftward without, apparently, being a communist, but his views were standard for the time: anti-Vietnam, anti-nuclear proliferation and bomb testing, anti-NATO. It's important to know this before seeing the film because the politics are somewhat vague. After his death, the then-current government of Karamanlis fell, succeeded by a left-center government led by Georges Papandreou, which King Constantine later disbanded. Then the King himself was overthrown by a military junta. The junta fell in 1975, and Greece has been a republic since then. Costa-Gavras made Z about two years after the junta took power. The film's composer, Mikis Theodorakis, was in fact under house arrest at the time he contributed a song to the movie's sound track (the rest of his music comes from previously written scores).
Z concerns a peace rally sponsored by a leftist group at which an unnamed senator (Yves Montand) is set to give the keynote address. Pressure from the government forces the owner of the hall to throw them out, and the event moves to a smaller venue next to an auditorium where the elites are lining up to see the Bolshoi Ballet. Various bureaucratic impediments are put in the group's path and when the senator marches out to confront the useless police contingent, a three-wheeler emerges from the crowd and attacks him. He falls to the ground and is then slowly transported to the hospital. After his death, the government installs an investigator (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to whitewash the case, but though he was advertised as a loyal party hack he turns out to have a moral center. In the meantime, a witness comes forward and refuses to be squelched, and an opportunistic photo-journalist instigates a parallel investigation into the case. Justice appears to have been done, but a coda in the film describes the immediate aftermath: left wingers hounded, killed, imprisoned, and the rise of the junta.
Perhaps Europeans don't need a primer to understand the backdrop to the events of the story, Americans, who tend to be uninterested in other cultures, and know little history, even their own, will if they are to get anything out of the film, if they are to understand the urgency of the two combatting sides. Unfortunately, the politics remain unclear. Just what is at stake between these waring factions, and was it really just good versus bad? The left is famous for dissenting among each other, but here they are presented as a unified force. And the views of the government are not presented. It seems to be assumed that if military officers are involved with government policy there is something wrong. That's fine, but the viewer may want to know the specifics.
Montand is, as usual, the epitome of world weariness, a man seemingly defeated before he gets up in the morning. There are hints in the movie that he is a bit of a rogue, but the meaning is unclear, and Irene Pappas, who plays his wife as an almost silent figure of stoic grief, is ultimately irrelevant to the proceedings. Z is photographed by Raoul Coutard, the reliable New Wave cinematographer, and along with its editing style the film has the look and feel of a New Wave exercise, but with the unusual stern face of absolute seriousness, Euripides by way of Bugs Bunny.
Also unfortunately, the leftish orientation is not completely inclusive. Of the two actual killers, comically named Vago (Marcel Bozzufi, from The French Connection) and Yago (Renato Salvatori, of Rocco and his Brothers), Vago happens to be gay. It's not bad enough that he assassinated the hope of all right-thinking people everywhere – he's also a fag! This facet of the real killer's character may be true, but Costa-Gavras and his screenwriter Jorge Semprún present the information in a rather unenlightened fashion.
Some reviewers at the time demurred on two aspects of the film. One was the depressing ending, the other was the fact that the essentially policy oriented tale is tricked up with an imposed suspense momentum. The famous car chase of a lone man is actually irrelevant to the plot, and in fact, the average viewer probably doesn't know who is being chased or why. However, the momentum adds a gripping urgency to the events, and that is the result of work by editor Françoise Bonnot, who has cut films directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, Michael Cimino, Polanski, and many others, including Julie Taymor and her recent Across the Universe. Z greatly benefits from her swift sense of pace and impatience with waste. The ending of the film is depressing because after following the intricacies of how the conspiracy was handled and how its mysteries were penetrated, the film shifts gears and off-handedly mentions that all the good guys were harassed or jailed and evil triumphed anyway. Perhaps Costa-Gavras was attempting to remind viewers that the struggle continues, but after the exhilaration of the successful investigation and the indictments, the power of the oppressors seems implacable. In the long view, though, a piece of history was made, and contributed to the eventual advancement of the slow vessel of justice. These qualms aside, Z remains a model of taking complex political issues and forging some kind of coherent and zesty narrative out of them.
Z starts Friday, August 28th, 2009, at the Hollywood Theatre.