With each new year that we dive back into Criterion movies, there always seem to be recurring subgenres of films that each of us end up reviewing (John already mentioned his affinity for prison movies). This has never been intentional, but with past picks like Rome, Open City and The Battle of Algiers, it seems that each year I end up picking a political thriller based on what were recent events when these films were made. Unwittingly, I managed to pick another one of these films with Z, a film that tells a fictionalized version of the assassination of Greek leftist political leader Grigoris Lambrakis and the corrupt right-wing government that was responsible for it. However, the thing that separates Z from these other films I mentioned was that the authoritarian forces depicted here were still in power when the film was made, since Greek director Costa-Gravas had left his home country as a teenager to make films in France, where this film was produced (though oddly enough it was filmed in Algiers).
I’m not sure how effective these types of political films are in informing an audience as to the specifics of the events depicted in them, since I learned about most of its real-life parallels after watching Z. For the most part, the film doesn’t even make it abundantly clear that it takes place in Greece, other than the fact that Greek-sounding music is occasionally heard in the background and the setting seems to be near water. Though that feels appropriate when the film is more interested in eliciting an emotional response from the audience against rank corruption in a broad sense. Which may be the best way to get an audience invested in a political film — by appealing more to their hearts than their minds.
Z begins with a meeting of the heads of a militaristic security police, where a general is talking about rooting out the left-leaning influences that they say corrupt society. We see that the police are clearly plotting something for an upcoming rally of this pacifist organization, though it’s never quite clear what they’re plotting. We’re then introduced to this pacifist organization and its charismatic leader known simply as The Deputy (played by Yves Montand), who’s expected to give a big speech that night. Both demonstrators supporting The Deputy and anti-communist protesting him have shown up in droves to make a big fuss at The Deputy’s speech, while an expansive police force is keeping them in check. After violence between the crowd and one of the heads of the pacifist group breaks out, The Deputy is walking in between the crowd and is struck in the back of the head by a thug being driven in the back of a small truck. The Deputy is brought to the hospital and surgery is attempted, but he’s pronounced dead by the end of the night.
The police are quick to sweep The Deputy’s death under the rug and deem it as just an accident. However, an examining magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is at the hospital the night of the death, and quickly suspects that something is fishy. The rest of the movie plays a bit like a murder mystery, only we basically know all of the major facts of the mystery already. Still, we get to see in clearer detail exactly how the government planned this assassination, while the witnesses who clearly know enough to provide information on all the players in this conspiracy are targeted or threatened. However, through sheer will of “doing the right” thing, the magistrate is able to convict both the thugs who committed the murder as well as the high ranking officials who conspired with them, basically because the magistrate is never ousted for being either too far to the left or too far to the right.
It’s not a stretch to say that this movie is more than a little timely right now, not just because of the “right vs. left” polarization at the middle of it, but also because it concerns how living in a police state is bad. I’m not sure that Z’s commentary on this subject is particularly nuanced, since it only briefly gets into how the police and a far-right anti-communist group were in cahoots, but it doesn’t really have to. We’ve already seen enough of how the country’s government operates and how it will do anything to repress forces that they deem to be “societal ills”. Additionally, the way they depict the police forces is similarly in line with this ideology, as there’s even a scene where a group of police hold back a long-haired protestor and start chopping his hair off with some scissors.
This gets at the fact that even though there is a lot about this film that still feels relevant to today’s political climate, it also feels very 1969. There’s a line in the film after The Deputy is assassinated where one of his underlings says “why is it always our side that gets killed?” This can’t help but bring to mind the (then-recent) assassinations of MLK and Bobby Kennedy, as well as this very ‘60s phenomenon where any leader who seemed to point the way toward progress seemed to get gunned down by sinister forces. Even though political assassinations don’t really seem to happen as much these days, it does make one think of that line in regards to the fact that the worst, most evil men in power seem to live forever without consequence as some sort of cosmic joke.
Which brings me to the film’s ending, which is somewhat of a happy one, in that the people who perpetrated this crime are convicted, but in a post-credits crawl we see that they were let off fairly scot-free. Then just as what happened in Greece in the mid-60s, they were replaced by an even more authoritarian dictatorship, while hopeful protestors had nothing else to do but carry on the mantra “Z!” (“He lives”) in honor of The Deputy. This is a sly tribute to Grigoris Lambrakis, who was also remembered with this mantra, and it’s a nice real-life bookend to a film that though technically fictional, begins with the text “Any similarity to real persons and events is not coincidental. It is INTENTIONAL”.
So for a film that has a bit of a radical, leftist bent to it, it is a little odd that Z became the second-ever foreign-language film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (along with the recently reviewed Grand Illusion). That said, I wouldn’t necessarily call this a gritty docudrama. It’s clearly not a big-budget movie, but it has a few high profile international stars in it, and there is something broadly appealing about the thrilling way Costa-Gavras and his cinematographer Raoul Cotard shoot this thing. The camera’s never static, while we’re constantly cutting between flashbacks and different characters’ points of view. It almost gives Z the immediacy of an action movie, even if there’s only a few moments of violence. However, by constantly building on the small details of the parties involved, the film shows that the repercussions of one moment of violence can last a lifetime.