I had only the vaguest notion of Constantin Costa-Gavras' 1969 film Z before seeing it at Film Forum today: I knew that it was a "political thriller," that it had won the Academy Award for best foreign film, and that--from the still pictures I had seen--I liked the clothes (1960s shifts for the ladies and chunky glasses and skinny ties for the gents).
You may laugh, but the clothes cannot be dismissed: It is partly Z's stylish panache that gives it its electricity, that makes it a nail-biting, elegant thriller rather than just some cautionary political tale, which it easily could have been. We are, after all, dealing with extremist fascist-like governments here. Somehow Z has it both ways: I can't think of a political film that's this much fun yet so harrowing in its portrayal of government corruption and the way it manipulates the mob. It's George Orwell done with the seductiveness of a Jean-Pierre Melville film.
The film opens with a police general giving a lecture on the dangerous ideological "-isms" infecting society as a group of pacifists await the arrival of a charismatic activist--played by a devastatingly handsome Yves Montand--whose life has been threatened and who is expected to deliver a speech at a pacifist meeting and demonstration that evening. Tensions escalate when a group of right-wing extremists show up yelling taunts, throwing punches and wielding clubs--one of which, coming from a punk in the back of a three-wheeled pick-up, strikes the venerated speaker on the head, leaving him critically wounded. Government officials hope to dismiss the whole thing as a drunk-driving accident and leave it at that and hires young, stoic magistrate Jean-Louis Trintignant to quickly close the case.
But turns out the unflappable wunderkind, with his tinted sunglasses and almost square devotion to his work, is a bit too smart for his own good, and he slowly--with the help of a heartthrob, ambiguously leftist photojournalist--begins unraveling a complicated web of government conspiracy and corruption. Costa-Gavras' breakneck editing, the quick, fractured and jarring flashbacks, and Mikis Theodorakis' thumping score give a sense of chaos and paranoia, less the picture appear a little too elegantly executed.
Time has in no way tempered the film's wallop (it celebrates its 40th anniversary this year). Z was inspired by the real-life assassination of Olympic athlete turned pacifist Gregoris Lambrakis in Greece, which shortly after became a military dictatorship--one supported by the United States. The film's rather sober coda--after a gleeful dispatching of those officials and policemen involved in the assassination--feels rather like a slap in the face, a wake-up call after two hours of first-rate entertainment. In a way it dismantles the conventions of this type of thriller--here we are ready to accept the neat, tidy, happy end to the story, when--bam--life intrudes, as a cold epilogue delivered by our dapper photojournalist, who is then replaced by some dispassionate, anonymous woman's voice.
On the way home from the theater I read Keith Gessen's Letter from Moscow in The New Yorker about the trial of the men accused of organizing and carrying out the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and I got the chills. I realized then the prescience Costa-Gavras' extraordinary film, and it scared me.