Directed By: Costa-Gavras
Written By: Jorge Semprun, Costa-Gavras (based on the novel Z by Vassilis Vassilikos)
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Yves Montand, Pierre Dux, Jacques Perrin
The title of Costa-Gavras’s political, and oftentimes satirical, thriller Z, refers to the Greek protest slogan, “he lives”. It’s in reference to the influential, and fallen, political figure known in the film as the Deputy, but who represents the real-life Greek figure Grigoris Lambrakis. As we are informed in the beginning, “any similarity to actual persons or events is deliberate”, and with a ruthless efficiency the film details the occurrence of the politician’s assassination in the wake of left and rightwing tensions.
If Costa-Gavras was at all romantic, Z (he lives) would be a notion of pacifistic pride. His film would bring us a story of a man whose memory has endured and who died for the ultimate cause. But for Costa-Gavras, this clearly isn’t the case. In the film’s gut-wrenching epilogue, which the director charges towards with a bullish tenacity, we learn that this story is not a romantic one, and to attempt to twist it as such would be horribly ill-conceived. The nature of the events persist in memory, but what has become of their effects? Why did it all happen? Who is it, if anyone, that lives?
The film opens with a university-like lecture, delivered by the General (the head of secret police), on the need for leftism, and all other manner of “isms”, to be cut off at the roots. They are mildew, threatening to attack the tree of national liberty, and the words are delivered with a clarity and drive, metaphor aside, which is indicative of Costa-Gavras approach in rendering the story. He motors through the tragic narrative, based on Vassilis Vassilikos’s novel, with a cold matter-of-factness. The director is undeterred, almost impersonal in his methodology, which is at once the film’s great strength, and its fleeting weakness. There is an air of emotional detachment in the marrow of the film’s bones, necessitated by its relentlessly procedural approach, but it is crushing and painfully thought provoking in its politics. To have its messages delivered with such directness and simplicity is akin to being a child having their most inspired fantasies crushed. “There is no Santa or tooth-fairy. Just this corrupt life”. The words uttered with an unsympathetic callousness.
It is difficult to pinpoint a definitive protagonist. The film whips from police, to campaigners, to anti-communist goons, to politicians and their family, but it does in large part settle on the moralistic magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant), tasked with deciphering the truth behind the Deptuty’s (played by Yves Montand) demise. The Magistrate’s tinted glasses and controlled demeanour give him a calculated stead-fastness as he navigates the labyrinth of violence and politics. He is urged to believe the Deputy was struck by a drunken driver, a relatively open-and-closed case, but he’s not one to privilege convenience over justice.
He finds support in a young, plucky journalist (Jacques Perrin), who tenaciously hurls himself into the mess with a youthful steeliness. If these are our heroes then the General (Pierre Dux) must be the antagonist. His exact involvement is unclear, we know he is teeming with leftwing hatred, and he is certainly not one to be sympathetic towards the slain, but it’s obvious we are being urged from the outset to never take him at face value.
Z is not a whodunit, rather it is a pro-pacifist account of corruption and the horrid price of morality. It moves like lightning with a captivating panache, magnificently spliced together by Francoise Bonnot with rapid-fire editing and match cuts, and Costa-Gavras’ whirling camera and sudden creeping in on the action catapults us to the ground running.
There’s also a satirical flair to its bluntness and snappy movements, but the film is never dense or suffocating with its speedy procedure and unrelenting talk of politics and law. Instead it’s laconic and lively, like the very best thrillers should be.
This is a film of ethos over style however. Its messages clock you in the jaw like blindsiding haymakers, striking with suddenness and rapidity and unravelling with an energetic snap and crackle, poignantly downbeat though it is at heart. It stings, viciously, but it’s exhilarating all the same and never less than mesmerising.
The term “Z” was banned in the aftermath of the Deputy’s assassination (or is it rather the Deputy’s incident?), a piece of information which is gutting to hear but so matter-of- actedly told to us. History will have us gloss over the events, but not Costa-Gavras. The director charges with purpose and pace, his film at once revealing, providing all the answers necessary, but provoking a deeper line of questioning that stirs the stomach.