Z – 1969
Director – Costa-Gavras
Starring – Yves Montand, Irene Pappas, and Jean-Louis Trintignant
Z, the French language film, based on a true story that happened in Greece, is by far the best movie that I have watched so far in this best of list. I approached it with skepticism because of the lack of any stars that I was really familiar with (stupid of me I know), but I walked away in love with it. I loved the meandering nature of the storytelling, not telling too much at any one point. I loved the fact that the point of view switched a few times throughout the story, from the main character “The Deputy” played by Yves Montand to his wife played by Irene Pappas, to the determined Examining Magistrate played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. I loved that certain individualized details of the story (character names, country names, city names, etc…) were left intentionally vague in order not to date or limit the impact of the movie in other countries and when compared against other political situations. I guess I just plain LOVED this movie.
I was fortunate enough to see this film at the Music Box Theater in Chicago, from a restored print for the 40th anniversary re-release (I can only hope that there will be a corresponding DVD release too). When it first started I found myself wondering what I had gotten into, the dense politically themed plot was barely given an introduction before characters were introduced and tension started to build. The tension continued to build and shape itself for the rest of the movie until the end where, in the final reel, we were ultimately rewarded for our diligence.
The plot itself mirrors the assassination of a left wing politician in Greece, Grigoris Lambrakis, but it also borrows heavily from the intense political turmoil of the day from America’s involvement in Vietnam, the tension in French occupied Algeria, the civil rights movement, and the women’s liberation movement. Z manages to ooze an immediacy that later thrillers of the 70s would put to good use. Fear and paranoia run rampant in this film, but it never submits to apathy. The spirit of the storytelling is one of hope, hard times and trouble too, but also hope for a better outcome.
The switching of POV serves to further involve the audience in the fully realized world that has been created, or rather, mirrored here. We travel from hope of reform from a corrupt, bloated government body (the Deputy), to the pain and fear of that same government (the Deputy’s wife), to determination to do the right thing, and the confidence that justice will prevail (the Examining Magistrate). By the end of the film we’ve been witness to a battle between the same good and evil forces that we see at work today it places like Darfur, Afghanistan, Iraq, and at home here in America. The director, Costa-Gavras’, decision to make elements of the story anonymous, at the same time makes it that much more personal. By not pointing out one specific source of evil or good, we are allowed to fill in those blanks and relate the story to our own lives.
About a year ago now, I watched the movie “The Dancer Upstairs”, and was blown away. It was an absolutely fantastic story about the hunt for a political revolutionary/terrorist in the capital city of an un-named country in South America. While I still think that The Dancer Upstairs is an utterly fantastic film, Z utilizes the same storytelling techniques, increases the immediacy, provides a more universal examination of corruption, AND it did it 33 years earlier. (By the way, this is in no means meant to put down The Dancer Upstairs, it is simply meant to compliment Z. Please go see both and enjoy them.)
Some of the strengths of this movie also, in some specific ways, work against it. For instance, since it borrows so heavily from it’s tumultuous time period, it does seem a little dated. The lack of political tools such as the internet, television and the radio as a means of expression facilitate some of the problems these protesters have to deal with. If people could simply watch at home, or check it out on the internet later, maybe they wouldn’t have run into the rowdy group of anti-protesters that were trying to thwart them from the beginning. Then again, maybe our ability to watch something else, or avoid issues all together is exactly why we are so apathetic, and un-engaged today.
If you were to take one thing away from this review of the movie Z, it is that you should definitely check it out. Highly recommended! This one will be hard to beat!