Z: Criterion Collection
October 26, 2009
Cited by many critics as one of the best political thrillers to come out of the 1960s, Z (1969) has also been cited as an influence on filmmakers like Oliver Stone (JFK) and Steven Soderbergh (Traffic). This political assassination thriller struck a nerve in the United States whose populace was still reeling from the killings of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. Based on Vassilis Vassilikos novel of the same name, Z is a fictionalized account of the assassination of Greek left-wing activist Gregoris Lambrakis.
A leftist politician (Montand) tries to organize a rally in a predominantly conservative country. He and his people have a hard time finding a venue because nobody wants the trouble that will inevitably follow them. Sure enough, on the night of the meeting, the police arrive in force along with all kinds of angry protesters. Things get ugly outside the venue and the politician is hit over the head by a protester en route to the rally. After giving a speech, he exits and is struck again. The police are quick to rule it an “accident” but the magistrate (Trintignant) is not convinced until he sees all the evidence and interviews all the witnesses.
The government delays telling him that they have a key witness in custody. Meanwhile, the politician is diagnosed as being clinically dead – his brain is no longer functioning even though his heart continues to work. An autopsy reveals that he was killed by a blow to the head from a weapon. The murder is subsequently retold from several different points-of-views as we get the backstory of many of the key participants.
Director Costa-Gavras employs a radical editing technique reminiscent of the French New Wave as he utilizes jump cuts, repetitive use of certain images, jarring inserts and indiscriminately cuts back and forth in time to create a fractured narrative much like Oliver Stone did later with JFK (1991). The retelling of the assassination from several different characters allows Gavras to present a much bigger picture that includes a government cover-up of a conspiracy to kill a politician that spoke out against the current regime’s policies.
The filmmaker also presents a diverse collection of characters that include an opportunistic journalist, two thuggish career criminals cum assassins, a no-nonsense magistrate, and a distraught politician’s wife. Gavras brilliantly shows how they all contribute to this complex narrative each with their own unique motivations. Z is also an engrossing thriller as the magistrate gradually pieces everything together. This film certainly paved the way for modern political thrillers like Traffic (2002) and Syriana (2005), demonstrating how it has remained relevant after all these years.
There is an audio commentary by film historian Peter Cowie. He points out that while not naming names, the screenplay for Z is a scathing commentary of the then-government of Greece, Costa-Gavras home country. Cowie talks about Z’s place within the context of political cinema in the 1960s. He also talks briefly about the Greek history that informed the events depicted in Gavras’ film. Cowie does a good job of giving brief bios of key cast members and how they got involved with Z. This is a very informative track with in-depth analysis.
“It’s Intentional: Costa-Gavras on Z” is a brand new interview with filmmaker made exclusively for this DVD. He views filmmaking as a form of activism and with Z he wanted to comment on post-World War II Greece. He talks about going to Paris to study as a young man and while there discovering cinema. He also touches upon the origins of Z.
“Raoul Coutard Shoots Z” is an interview with the film’s cinematographer who talks about how he came to work on the film and his impressions of Gavras’ working methods in comparison with someone like Jean-Luc Godard. He praises the cast, especially Yves Montand’s professionalism.
Author Vassilis Vassilikos talks about his book on which the film was based on. He also speaks at length about the assassination.
Gavras and actors Yves Montand, Irene Papas, Jacques Perrin, and Jean-Louis Trintignant talk about the film. The actors speak about drew them to the film.
In another interview, Gavras, Perrin and Pierre Dux talk briefly about making the film. Gavras explains the meaning of the film’s title.
Finally, there is a trailer that is dynamically edited with excerpts of the film’s pulsating soundtrack.