Costa-Gavras's lacerating satire of a country gone mad
We start with a dizzying montage: close-ups of military decorations, royal symbols, religious icons. All the emblems of reactionary order. Then we're subjected to bizarre lectures by government officials, including a General (Pierre Dux) ranting about "mildew of the mind" and Communist agitation causing sunspots. "God casts no light on the Reds," he comments, expounding on the need for society's "antibodies" to combat leftists. The General's audience seems as baffled as us, but no one contradicts him.
As if this weren't jarring enough, next comes this title:
"Any resemblance to real events, or to people, alive or dead, is no coincidence. It is INTENTIONAL."
Clearly, Z (1969) isn't an ordinary thriller. Costa-Gavras's film was a sensational hit, making over $14,000,000 internationally and winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. It also inspired generations of conspiracy dramas, from The Parallax View through JFK. But Costa-Gavras has something Alan Pakula and Oliver Stone lack: a sense of humor.
From the 1930s onward, Greece endured Ioannis Metaxas's dictatorship, Nazi occupation during World War II, a brutal civil war and fractious democracy. In May 1963 two thugs killed Grigoris Lambrakis, a left-wing Parliamentary leader, following a protest in Thessaloniki. It emerged that his assassins had ties with high-ranking military and police officials. The resulting scandal destroyed Konstantinos Karamanlis's government and fanned opposition protests. But it also strengthened the extreme right, who seized power in 1967.
These events inspired novelist Vassilis Vassilikos to pen Z, its title reflecting the pro-Lambrakis protest phrase Zei ("he lives"). Naturally the junta suppressed the novel, alongside subversive writings, dress style and music. Greece's most prominent composer, Mikis Theodorakis, founded the Lambrakis Democratic Youth and served in Greece's parliament. The junta jailed him and outlawed his music, arresting shop-owners who sold his records. Theodorakis got some revenge, penning Z's defiant score while exiled to the village of Zatouna.
Vassiliko's novel reached Konstantinos Gavras, a Greek-born filmmaker living in France. Costa-Gavras's leftist father was arrested following the Civil War (1945-1949), Costa-Gavras himself barred from university: "I was a victim of the Cold War," he recalled, traveling to France to study. He'd made a few minor films before 1969, but Z made Costa-Gavras a household name.
Costa-Gavras's oeuvre probes governmental corruption and oppression. "We can't not be involved" in politics, he comments. "By not taking a position, you take a position." Later films include The Confession (1971), critiquing Eastern Bloc Communism; Missing (1982), set in Pinochet's Chile; and Amen (2003), exploring Vatican complicity in the Holocaust. Yet Z's blend of humor and immediacy makes it stand out.
Z never explicitly identifies its setting, with French actors, Algerian locations and generic characters: Yves Montand is "The Deputy," Pierre Dux "The General", Jean-Louis Trintignant "The Magistrate." Costa-Gavras acknowledges the silliness: one scene features a close-up of Greece's King Constantine, with his face cut out! But the setting couldn't be anywhere but Greece - something we're reminded of when Irene Papas materializes as The Deputy's widow.
Z relishes humiliating its reactionary villains. The General rants about his "antibodies" purifying Greece through violence and intimidation. (If this seems overdone, compare to General Georgios Papadopolous comparing Greece to "a patient in a cast...We break the initial cast and...put another cast where is needed.") At film's end, he's confronted by a reporter (Jacques Perrin) who compares him to Alfred Dreyfus. Incredulous, The General roars: "DREYFUS WAS GUILTY!" He makes Dr. Strangelove's General Ripper seem well-adjusted.
American thrillers show a government with infinite resources to destroy evidence and silence witnesses. Z's conspirators are remarkably crude: the Deputy's murder is executed by two bumbling thugs Yago (Renato Salvatori) and Vago (Marcel Bozzuffi), who publicly club him. Later they try running a witness down in broad daylight; Vago sneaks into a hospital to finish someone off, grinning cheekily when caught! Greece's New Order is built on such bozos.
Naturally, Z's more nuanced depicting its heroes. After the Deputy's death, his aides debate how to react. Should they mourn him or exploit his passing? Will the Deputy's death instill sympathy or incite more violence? Greece's youth spontaneously embraces the Deputy as a martyr: his death becomes an embarrassment for the government, who rush to cover up. The opposition realizes they need overwhelming evidence to prove official complicity.
Enter the Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Bespectacled, clean-cut, son of a policeman, he's reckoned an Establishment lackey who will abet the cover-up. Instead, he's intrigued by inconsistent testimony (was the Deputy struck or did he hit the pavement?), insistent witnesses and everyone's ties to an organization called CROC. At a key moment, he stops referring to the Deputy's death as "the Incident" - now it's "the murder."
Modern viewers will recall Oliver Stone's JFK (1992), which borrows the martyred politician, the prosecutor-hero and military conspirators - and, less defensibly, the demonic gay villains (Vago is a pederast). But Costa-Gavras isn't content with Stone's hazy conjecture. The Magistrate's real-world analogue, Christos Sartzetakis, is a conservative who values law over politics. Accordingly, Trintignant isn't a crusader but an objective analyst who can't be bought, bullied or intimidated.
Thus follows a brilliant conclusion. The General smugly appeals to the Magistrate's conscience. Soon the Magistrate serves indictments on Greece's military establishment, unmoved by their threats of suicide or retribution. Costa-Gavras builds to a gleeful crescendo: officials march into the Magistrate's office, receive sentence, then flee inquisitive reporters. Theodorakis's triumphant score swells as bigger fish (evinced by their increased decorations) until the General's snared too. Funny and karmic, it's the perfect climax.
Then the gut-punch. Perrin's journalist reveals that the perpetrators were acquitted or given light sentences: soon democracy dissolves, witnesses killed or disappeared, others jailed, the junta seizes power. Perrin's replaced by another journalist who announces Perrin's arrest! Finally, a list of things banned by the regime, from Sophocles to the Beatles to the letter Z. It's a brilliant head-fake that crushes expectations. Exultation turns to disgust: the General's mad pronouncements no longer seem funny. Now he's in charge.
History vindicated Z's protagonists. After seven years of brutal rule, student unrest and war on Cyprus finally toppled the Colonels. Prosecutor Christos Sartzetakis survived imprisonment and torture to become President in 1985. In recent years, Greece has experienced bumps - from its recent economic crisis to the rise of the far-right Golden Dawn - but remains steadfastly democratic. Sometimes, reality does have a happy ending.