Costa-Gavras’ 1969 classic Z kicked off an entire generation of political thrillers with its thinly fictionalized, bitterly satirical nod to the 1963 assassination of democratic Greek politician Gregoris Lambrakis. Thumbing his nose at the military dictatorship ruling Greece at the time, Costa-Gavras opens the film with a now-famous epigram: “Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is DELIBERATE.” (Later, in the closing credits, the filmmakers list a number of things banned by the government, from artists, authors, and popular musicians to the free press, labor unions, and long hair on men.) Though a French-Algerian production, financed and photographed far from the oppressive military junta ruling Greece at the time, it was nonetheless a brave, unmistakable shot to the bow, akin to Hamlet staging a play for his uncle’s benefit. It was the perfect film for the end of a turbulent decade, and eternally relevant to the brutal regimes that have popped up since.
Costa-Gavras tosses this Molotov cocktail via the story of a left-wing politician (Yves Montand) in an unnamed country who’s killed by a passing motorist, but has his death covered up by official reports of an auto accident. In the lead-up to the tragic event—which the director takes unexpected time to detail—there are signs of imminent disaster, as a planned demonstration against nuclear proliferation meets fierce opposition from the authorities and club-wielding thugs on the ground. After the violent clashes on the streets lead inexorably to the killing, the dogged prosecutor (Jean-Louis Trintignant) finds evidence that the death wasn’t accidental, and that the perpetrators are connected to people in the highest corridors of power. The shocking truth comes out, but once it does, the tragedy deepens all the more.
Like its spiritual predecessor The Battle Of Algiers, Z is as much a mini-revolution as it is a movie, actively engaging in a political battle as it was unfolding. (Greece’s military junta didn’t end until 1974, and it enjoyed the support of a U.S. mired in the Cold War.) Seen today, Z’s lessons still apply—those armed thugs, operating with the government’s tacit approval, aren’t unlike the Basji in Iran, who worked hard to put down the “Green Revolution”—and though sometimes coarse and heavy-handed in its fervor, the film moves with a righteous, electrifying sense of purpose. It’s a film both unmistakably of its time, and timeless.
Key features: An essay by New York Press critic Armond White that proves how good he can be when he isn’t flambéing straw men. An audio commentary by historian Peter Cowie, new interviews with Costa-Gavras and legendary cinematographer Raoul Coutard, and a slew of older interviews with cast and crew, including the author of the book Z, Vassilis Vassilikos.