Z (as the first letter in Zei) means “He lives” in ancient Greek. In 1967, a right wing colonels in the Greek military executed a coup d’état in Greece installing a junta that would last for seven years. Europe, as you may be aware, was an ideological battleground of Left against Right on a scale that makes our own disagreements seem petty. After World War II, Greece fell into civil war and in 1949, with the aid of the US and UK, the communists were defeated—incidentally, Mao won victory in the Chinese civil war that same year—and a constitutional monarchy formed. The electoral victory of centrists in 1965 and the likely victory of a left-center coalition in 1967, gave pretext for the military coup with the king’s begrudged approval. Although not partial to dictators, the United States would continue to give aid because of Greece’s highly important strategic position for the West and NATO.
Four years earlier, a politician, Grigoris Lambrakis, an anti-fascist, pacifist, and left-leaning figure was assassinated in 1963 by two right-wing extremists in a three-wheeled car. The assassination was investigated by Christos Sartzetakis, who found connections between the extremists and the police/army. In 1967, Sartzetakis was imprisoned for a year, but was highly regarded by the public for his part in the investigation. The film Z (1969) begins: “Any resemblance to real events, to persons dead or living, is not accidental. It is INTENTIONAL.” I think I’m going to like this movie.
A senator, Z (Yves Montand), is arriving in this northern French town to address a leftist rally. However, the owner of the hall where the rally is scheduled has changed his mind and will not allow them to use his hall. The organizers, the outspoken Manuel (Charles Denner) and the pragmatic Matt (Bernard Fresson), also hear that there may be an attempt on Z’s life. They tell the police, but they believe it is just a hoax. The only place that the rally can be held is in a small venue near a public square recommended by the Police Chief (Pierre Dux). Right wing hoodlums assault the demonstrators, but the rally goes on as planned. The police, out in numbers, do nothing to stop the thugs who assault the demonstrators. On the contrary, they are violent with those demonstrators that confront them. Two of these thugs, Yago (Renato Salvatori) and the odious Vago (Marcel Bozzuffi) drive through the square as Z is leaving the rally and club Z on the head, wounding him severely. An investigation into the incident follows where initial accounts suggest that this was an accident and Yago and Vago were simply drunk. On the story is a morally ambiguous journalist (Jacques Perrin) and investigating judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Will the Judge see through this, succumb to pressure, will the truth get out, or what?
There is so much to this movie that the above cannot possibly do it justice. I don’t want to spend too many words on the premise and the bulk of the film is about the investigation and attempted cover-up. Z won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and was nominated for Best Picture.
The direction (Costa-Gavras) and style of storytelling is 15-20 years ahead of its capacity. The number of brief flashbacks, the weaving of stories and perspectives, it’s all very impressive. There is some extreme zooming which is dated, but pretty common to any movie of the period, French or not. Also the editing is rather abrupt without much int he way of establishing shots. But so much of the camera work is dynamic without being showy—I’m speaking of the bulk of the movie outside of conscious moments of the film–it makes the movie very watchable. The music (Mikis Theodorakis) was very good and should have been used better. As good as the movie was, I think that a modern ironing out of some of these kinks would make it a complete masterpiece.
The writing is so good. Its being in French obviously hampers my ability to tell whether the expression is particularly graceful, but its function in story and basic dialogue is excellent (by my standards). It’s probably the first non-Besson French movie I’ve seen where I was enthralled with the story. There are some sillinesses I attribute to the French—the strong heart of the Communist opposition leader—but I can admire common themes. One of these is the language of the police and right-wing thugs which often alludes to cleaning up or eradicating infection. That metaphor is often used by self-righteous psychotics of either genocidal or totalitarian preferences. We are so often reminded of this language with regard to the Holocaust, Yugoslavia, or Rwanda that it is surprising that the words don’t catch in the throats of those who refer to homosexuality or liberalism as a sickness. I guess that’s why they’re crazy.
I didn’t catch all of the comic moments—this is supposed to be a dark comedy of the satiric kind—but further viewings may correct that. The actors play their parts quite earnestly and the sense of humor is French, so I’ll have to look closely. I might have thought all the people wearing sunglasses inside was a joke, but one can never tell with the French. Still, my distaste for national traits aside, I must acknowledge strong work from most of the cast. The emotional response from Z’s wife Helene (Irene Papas) was too crazy to be allowed, but she is an exceptional case. I’d point out Montand, Denner, and Dux as particularly strong characters.
The story reminds me quite a bit of The Life of Emile Zola (1937). One character even refers to the Dreyfus Affair in this movie to which a police officer replies, shouting, “Dreyfus was guilty!” The reason why I watched both The Life of Emil Zola and Z was because they were recommended so highly by Christopher Hitchens (though Zola the man I transposed in recommendation for the film). Hitchens, whatever you think of his positive doctrine, has an eye for issue-spotting. He was such a voracious reader that he could cover vast fields of topics and pick out those that resonate (with me). The key theme is that of revolution against totalitarianism wherever it lies.
A commonality of totalitarianism is a lust for Power. The kind of power I simply cannot understand and I feel needs to be capitalized to convey. I eat at this Chinese-German restaurant. The food is good, but half an hour later, I’m hungry for Power. (Credit Dick Cavett via Stephen Fry.) People speak of power as if it were in some supply and needs getting—“Ten units of Power please, shopkeeper.” Where I see Power is in a playground where a mother wails on their child because the child committed some mild offense. I see it in the Police Chief in Z that waits, head up-turned, and watches the hoods he instigated and decides, arbitrarily, when to allow his waiting officers to intervene. But so long as the world turns about its axis and tides ebb and flow uncontrollably, how can you see this and not laugh at how petty it is? “Power, be not proud,” you might say, “for some have called thee mighty and dreadful, thou art not so.”
Power is on display in Z with the police over everything. The government listens only to the police and the police lie. It is all for the greater good. For religion over atheism and the right over the left—they can’t quite claim democracy over tyranny. The opposition is full of those who would manipulate the truth to support their cause. So powerful a foe requires strong resistance. The press must be kept from reporting stories or taking pictures that might give the wrong impression. Ultimately, the police may have to remove the infection through force. It is impossible to tell what they really believe anymore. Z is not a communist so much as an opposition leader and pacifist. The end of the film lists those things outlawed by the junta. It is a pathetic display.
It is quite expensive so far as movies go, but $34 is probably worth it for a serious movie watcher. It is the Criterion Collection, so the chances are decent that it is at your local library. Find it somehow and enjoy.