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Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: Jeremy Carr on Costa-Gavras’ ‘Z’

“Politics are a lot of crap” – Barone (Gérard Darrieu), Z

Costa-Gavras wasn’t holding back with his 1969 masterpiece, Z, opening with a bold declaration, a printed statement reading: “Any similarity to persons or events is deliberate.” There was no need to hide his intent, or to disguise the substance of this breakneck thriller. Though its city setting is left ambiguous, and its primary characters are essentially generic figures fulfilling their requisite role in the film’s principled plot, Z was an obvious interpretation of what transpired in 1963, when controversial Greek pacifist Gregorios Lambrakis, a doctor and liberal politician, was murdered in Thessaloníki. The crime was deemed a “traffic accident,” and the incendiary response launched a full-throttle uprising. With a screenplay by Jorge Semprún and Costa-Gavras (full name Konstantinos Gavras), based on Vassilis Vassilikos’ 1966 novel of the same name, Z encapsulates a generation’s worth of turmoil, with simmering post-war power struggles, social upheaval and competing political factions. But if it is a film specific in its ostensible motivation, it endures because of its broad, allegorical concentration.

Following a rapid-fire credit sequence, where a mocking montage of medals parade the glitzy pomposity of executive honor, a government policy spiel derides the “ideological mildew” ravaging the land, condemning the “outbreak of ‘isms,’” and absurdly attributing sunspots to beatniks. It’s the sort of overzealous rhetoric that feeds discrimination, suppression and oppression, running counter to the democracy that supposedly grounds the region. What initiates the drama, however, drawing the evident parallels to Lambrakis, is a planned speech by an opposition party deputy played by Yves Montand. Denied the desired hall for their meeting, he and his colleagues adopt a smaller venue and employ loudspeakers to spread their message. Despite word of impending sabotage — or worse — the threats go unheeded by the local police, who sit idly by as the powder keg convenes in an increasingly chaotic and inevitably violent philosophical clash. At its most simplistic, the fray fractures along the lines of one side promoting the importance of disarmament as another touts the maxim “Long live the bomb!” As the bureaucratic and legislative authorities are happily busied by a concurrent ballet (a high-class contrast to the pandemonium on the streets), Montand’s divisive orator is attacked by government-backed (or at least shielded) right-wing combatants, ultimately dealt a death blow to the skull.

In the anarchic aftermath, after improvisatory retaliation yields a barrage of rocks, clubs and fists and the night explodes in a torrent of confusion and panic, Z’s next protagonist emerges (Costa-Gavras does a remarkable job transferring and sustaining allegiances). A fair-minded examining magistrate, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and largely based on Christos Sartzetakis, later to become Greece’s president, attempts to sift through the mayhem and rampant duplicity. At the same time, an idealistic journalist played by Jacques Perrin, who also produced Z, tries to uncover the layers upon layers of deceit. Frustratingly passive-aggressive authority figures add fuel to the fires sparked by the already antagonistic parties, and as they face the fallout, those involved commence a hasty resolution, manipulating the press and swaying witness testimony. It’s a mad scramble of protocol pandering and slapdash cover ups; alibis and assorted accounts unravel and authorities dig into a dossier on the deputy, seeking dirt to “break his halo.” Nevertheless, even if only in legal terminology, the fatal hit has effectively shifted from an “incident” to a “murder.”

Z rages with a severe condemnation of police state procedure, of pervasive foreign influence, and of the conspiracies that threaten to undermine and impede the judicial process (such as it is in this mendacious, militaristic administration). On the night of the assassination, the fingers of corruption and resistance — decidedly contrary yet begrudgingly linked in cultural prevalence — clench in a formidable fist, but after the inciting attack, those furious limbs again stretch out, extending in separate passages that will always preserve a fundamental base. Tracking these divergent entities, Z proceeds at a dizzying pace, which Costa-Gavras manages to keep cohesive, clarified and critical. Less multifaceted in terms of immediate structure (if not in terms of sweeping significance), he would strike a similarly scathing view in much of his best work to come: The Confession (1970), State of Siege (1972) and Missing (1982), all indictments of abusive authoritative powers and the malignant governmental bodies that harbor and foster such corrosive venality.

Throughout Z, Costa-Gavras maintains an emphatically attentive tone, delivered with vitality and commitment. He maps the surge of conflicting characters by delineating their operative essences and charting their respective channels with thrilling tension. To be sure, it takes a team to harness this demonstrative tide of outrage and anxiety, and from the visceral intensity of the camera’s movement, to the frenzied editing and the pulsating urgency of the hyperreal climate, it all stems from a consortium of technique, courtesy cinematographer Raoul Coutard, editor Françoise Bonnot and composer Mikis Theodorakis, whose involvement in the film was itself an act of defiance: he was under house arrest at the time, but agreed to let Costa-Gavras use his previously recorded music.

As much as he is interested in what transpires when opposing fronts collide, Costa-Gavras is simultaneously attuned to what drives one to assume such a stance to begin with. The character of Barone (Gérard Darrieu) embodies this survey. A vital witness, he is hounded by those who desire his deposition, by those who want him dead and by those who wish he’d just avoid the whole mess altogether. “Eat and let them kill each other,” his mother implores, adopting a detached view of the skirmish, feeling helpless and inadequate in the grand scheme of things. Barone’s sister likewise pushes for his disassociation, but her suggestion derives from a selfish satisfaction. For her, acquiescence, going along to get along, results in security, not willful ignorance like her mother. As something of a side concern, Z’s analysis of partisan engagement does advance the complex relationship between the individual and a political entity, posing questions of why one becomes politically active, and why one should. What the picture realizes is that the sources of inspiration — a job, money, safety, societal promise — are often themselves fodder for exploitation, as those in power take advantage of weakness, desperation, and past and present affiliations.

Costa-Gavras puts the viewer in a privileged position, granting access to Z’s web of inquiry and presenting the unequivocal truth of the matter. Regardless of the spin and denial, viewers know what happened and can have sympathy for the facts; and by association, one may sympathize with those who seek these facts. But this sympathy is generally earned through thematic proposals, because while Z contains at least two of cinema’s most famous faces — Trintignant and Montand — the film is by no means a star vehicle. The characters are secondary to the subject matter (in acknowledgement of this, some of the actors offered to do the film at a reduced fee or for no pay at all). The only actor whose idiosyncrasies stand out as something exceptional is Marcel Bozzuffi as Vago, one of the fumbling assailants (they kidnap the wrong man), whose sheer deviousness and perverse exuberance generates a cocksure bravado that puts his character above the average figurehead. Make no mistake, the other performances are all enacted with resolute sincerity — save for perhaps Irene Papas, the only Greek actor in the film, who plays the deputy’s widow and is seen primarily as a dour, grieving vessel for snapshots of backstory via some memorial cross-cutting — but they are all still types, serving their necessary functions as representative professions.

Along these lines, although its source was definite and resounding, Z is at something of a national remove, partly because of its international cast, and partly because the picture was shot in Algeria. Contemporary Greek history is tantamount to the plot, of course, and the film is an outgrowth of the nation’s recent strife — cold wars and civil wars, the splintering of Communists and conservatives, and on and on — but it is also more than that. Z exemplifies global instability: terrorism, assassinations, paranoia, disastrous foreign policies and failed military invasions (suspect American involvement has also been an essential part of Costa-Gavras’ cinema — “Always blame the U.S.A.,” declares one character in Z, “even if you’re wrong”). Indeed, what defines Z as such an outstanding film, with a lasting value and lingering impact, are its generalizations. The film obscures some of the details for inspirational effect and universal application; it oversimplifies its well-defined villains and venerated protagonists. Whereas such a black and white distinction of good and bad would be less applicable in a different sort of drama, it’s perfectly suited to Costa-Gavras’ cinematic exposé. Riddled with buzzwords about vague committees and undefined extremists, imprecise terms thrown around to get attention and instill fear, Z remains tragically resonant.

There is also an enduring delight when the dominoes fall, when justice is served and those who abuse their power receive their comeuppance. But that, the film discloses, isn’t really what happened. As Costa-Gavras reveals at the end of the picture, in reality, witnesses die under mysterious circumstances and guilty parties receive ridiculously slight sentences, if they receive any punishment at all. In the wake of the depicted tragedy, the supervisory junta banned everything from Dostoevsky to The Beatles, from miniskirts to the letter “Z” itself — the ancient Greek character for “zíta,” meaning, “He lives,” an affirmation of defiant protest.

Z was the third feature from Costa-Gavras. It is one of few films to receive Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture, winning the former in addition to an award for Bonnot’s editing. It received a Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Foreign Film, it won the Jury Prize at Cannes and the National Society of Film Critics named it the top film of the year. Still, these plaudits, certainly deserved, do little to suggest the emotional, topical potency of the film, as it swells into a reverberating rallying cry. Costa-Gavras’ later work struck a far more precarious balance between measured judgement and explicit moralizing (see 1997’s agreeably didactic Mad City, or the restrained, challenging Amen, from 2002, a happier medium), but Z does everything right. It is a type of film rarely achieved today. Z is thoughtful, provocative, impassioned entertainment, stylish and teeming with conviction.

Watch ‘Z’ at FilmStruck.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.

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