Friday, September 23, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Z (1969)

Z (1969) ****
Directed by: Costa-Gavras.
Written by: Jorge Semprún based on the book by Vasilis Vasilikos.
Starring: Yves Montand (The Deputy), Irene Papas (Helene, the Deputy's wife), Jean-Louis Trintignant (The Examining Magistrate), Jacques Perrin (Photojournalist), Charles Denner (Manuel), François Périer (Public Prosecutor), Pierre Dux (The General), Georges Géret (Nick), Bernard Fresson (Matt), Marcel Bozzuffi (Vago), Julien Guiomar (The Colonel), Magali Noël (Nick's Sister), Renato Salvatori (Yago), Clotilde Joanno (Shoula).

Costa-Gravas’ brilliant 1969 paranoid, political assassination thriller Z is somewhat of a rarity. It is that rare film that made for its moment in time, and yet has not aged. Compare to another 1969 film that perfectly encapsulated the spirit of the times it was made in, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, and see how Hopper’s film has become dated, while Costa-Gravas’ film no seems almost timeless. Yes, it is directly about the 1963 assassination of a progressive political leader in Greece, but it captures the era’s paranoia of the public towards politicians in the wake of the Vietnam war, and the anger that seethed under the surface in America over their own string of political assassinations. Now, 40 years later, Z remains a perfect time capsule of its time, but one that also feels surprisingly modern. It is a truly remarkable film.

The film tells its story in three parts. The first part of the film involves a rally to be held where The Deputy (Yves Montand), the leader of the opposition, is to come and give a speech. The organizers have a location picked out, and a contract signed, but at the last minute the owner of the venue cancels – and gives them no reason. They try and find another location, but everywhere they turn, the are either turned away, or else the government won’t allow them to have it there for issues of “safety” - eventually suggesting that they hold it at a venue that is far too small for the number of people who are going to show up. The rally becomes chaotic – with loud speakers broadcasting the speech to the throngs of people outside – which includes the Deputy’s supporters and his detractors, and the clashes become more violent. This part of the film climaxes when the Deputy is leaving the rally, and a three wheeler comes by and crashes into the Deputy, dropping him to the ground, and leaving him dead. The second part of the film involves the immediate aftermath of the Deputy’s death – his supporters, and his widow (Irene Papas) try to pick up and continue his work, while the government tries to sweep everything under the rug, dismissing it all as simply a tragic accident – but one that wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the opposition in the first damn place. The third act is about the government prosecutor (Jean-Louis Trinignant) who is assigned the case, and finds it’s not as simple as he was told. For one thing, the autopsy has found that it was murder (which we already knew) and not an accident. As he digs deeper, layer upon layer of deception, corruption and cover-ups are uncovered, more people are threatened, including the Prosecutor himself. He is portrayed as a man without politics, but one who cannot stand to see injustice done. It doesn’t matter who was killed, or why, he’s going to get to the bottom of it.

The success that Z had in 1969 cannot be overstated. It won two prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, was the first Foreign Language film to ever win the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Picture, won the Foreign Language Oscar, and was the first Foreign Language nominee for Best Picture since 1938’s Grand Illusion, and was a sizable box office hit. Though the film was rooted in the political quagmire that is Greece, it feels universal – the conspiracy theory and the paranoia at the center applied worldwide at the time. It has in many ways become the “prototypical” Best Foreign Language Oscar winner – that is a film that uses Hollywood style filmmaking, but in a different language. We see this in recent Oscar winners like The Lives of Others, The Secret in Their Eyes and In a Better World. The secret to the success of Z is that Costa-Gavras marries a thriller aesthetic to a much more political film. While the film wears its politics on its sleeve – much like Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, to which this film is often compared – and yet it is still breathless, exciting and fast paced. We still see echoes of this film in many made today.

Z is an extraordinary film in many ways. It is the film that built Costa-Garvras’ reputation, even if he has never really achieved the same level of greatness since (not even in his Palme D’Or winning film Missing in 1982). It is a film that proves that not every film about politics needs to be dry or boring. It is a film full of good and evil, but the line is blurred, evil doesn’t always get punished, and good doesn’t always triumph. It is a truly great film.

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