Synopsis: When a liberal politician (Yves Montand) is murdered during a peace demonstration, several high-powered right wing figures set out to conceal their involvement and cover up the crime. An investigating magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) will stop at nothing to to uncover the truth, indict the assassins and and deliver justice.
The pinnacle of political thrillers.
The impact of Costa-Gavras’ politically volatile assassination thriller Z (1969) upon international cinema is particularly easy to measure in hindsight. Its release forced a policy change at the New York Film Critics Circle, allowing the voting members to bestow its Best Film honour on a non-American for the first time ever; it was the first non-English language film since Jean Renoir’s 1938 masterpiece Grand Illusion to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (one of its five nominations that year); and it grossed an unprecedented US$2.2million – the highest ever for a foreign language film up to that point.
The film remains potently relevant today but not for its place in film history. It’s a timeless classic thanks to its ability to still grip the modern viewer with a pulsating narrative rhythm (it won Françoise Bonnot the Best Editing Oscar) and instantly recognisable notion of immoral foul play in the halls of the highest public office.
A French-Algerian co-production adapted from Vassilis Vassilikos’ best-selling novel, the film follows the efforts of a magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to bring justice to the high-ranking officials responsible for the murder of an outspoken left-wing activist (Yves Montand). The basis for the story was the 1963 assassination of social democrat and pacifist Gregoris Lambrakis, who rallied against the ruling Communist party, paying for his democratic beliefs with what would be the first modern political murder on Greek soil. (The title is derived from the ancient Greek verb zei, meaning “he lives,” which had become a rallying cry for Lambrakis’s supporters.)
Costa-Gavras became an international star, his combination of traditional thriller elements and modern political intrigue imbuing the dry facts of the story with a compelling and compulsive cinematic life. The film allowed Costa-Gavras to attack the Papadopoulos regime that had ruled forcefully over his homeland; it arrived at a time when the US was recovering from the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King and with the population’s faith in the Oval Office at an all-time low, the film’s rebelliousness in the face of authority was perfectly timed.
A near-perfect combination of pure filmic thrills and hot-button issue examination, Z determinedly spoke to a population that demanded justice and accountability amongst its leaders. The film’s impact set in motion the push for Greek democracy, which was realised in 1974 with the election of Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis. It’s portrayal of an impassioned hero struggling against the might of the fetid political machine is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago; the pure excitement one derives from this great piece of filmmaking is similarly intact.
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