Z (DVD, 2009, Criterion Collection) Reviews
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Z (DVD, 2009, Criterion Collection)

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You Won't Be Copping ZZZ's During This Thriller

Jun 1, 2004 (Updated Feb 3, 2006)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Great story, worthy political message, strong performances, edge-of-your-seat suspense

Cons:Some suspect dialogue and stereotypically idiotic villains

The Bottom Line: Highly recommended as a taut political thriller with some fine performances


Any similarity to actual events or persons living or dead is not coincidental. It is intentional.

Thus reads the mock disclaimer that opens 1969’s Oscar Winning Best Foreign Film entitled simply, Z, though the title was originally intended to be “The Anatomy of a Political Assassination.” The title of the film comes from the pronunciation of the Greek letter “Z” (or, alternatively, the corresponding English-language letter), which sounds like the Greek words for “love live” or “he lives, he is alive.” This sound was vocalized by the large crowd that attended the funeral of assassination victim Gregorios Lambrakis in Athens in 1963. Although a Greek film in subject matter, Z was the product of a French production team and French performers and therefore combines elements of the respective artistic traditions of both country.

The Story: The story opens with viewers seemingly in attendance at a political meeting of conservative leaders in an unnamed European country (but obviously Greece given the Greek music, the similarity of the story to the 1963 killing of Gregorios Lambrakis, and the Greek origin of the ex-patriot director Constantin Costa-Gavras). The rhetoric consists of the range of denunciations typical of right wing gatherings – inoculating the young of the country against “ideological mildew” and the dangerous influences of socialism, communism, and anarchy. Of course, some hasten to add, it being a democracy (the great cradle of democracy, in fact), dissent will be permitted.

The times are especially rife for a rallying of conservative ideologues, long in control of this country’s politics, because a particularly popular leader, called simply the Deputy (Yves Montand) in this film, has arisen among the opposition and is projected to win the up-coming election. The Deputy is a pacifist, a former Olympic champion, a practicing physician, a professor at a university, and—unthinkably – an honest politician. He has energized enthusiastic support by mobilizing long-dormant resentment over the corruption and repressive demeanor of those currently in power. He has also garnered his share of sympathetic observers among the press corps, especially one photojournalist (Jacques Perrin).

The Deputy is scheduled to deliver a major speech to the faithful in the city, but corrupt government officials are doing their level best to minimize the success of the event. The city’s only large assembly hall has been mysteriously closed and the leftist organizers are offered only a small 200-seat hall across a city square from the hotel where the Deputy will be staying, despite the fact that the event is anticipated to draw about 4000 participants. Although police officials have received a tip concerning an assassination plot, they have little interest in pursuing the lead. They will concentrate instead on providing protection for the Bolshoi Ballet that is performing elsewhere in the city, concurrently.

Meanwhile, right wing groups have organized their thuggish sympathizers into a makeshift counter-rally in the square outside the meeting hall where the deputy is speaking. A police presence is belatedly organized, but the police appear to be sympathetic mainly to the counterdemonstration and determined not to interfere with whatever violent protest they initiate. An assistant of the leftist leader is mistaken for the man himself and barely makes it to the meeting hall in one piece. The rightist General (Pierre Dux) and Colonel (Julien Guiomar), who are nominally in charge of the police presence, disappear about this time, leaving the troops leaderless. The situation is now fraught with potential for tragic consequences.

Despite the warning of his assistant, the Deputy, showing his mettle as a potential leader, refuses to be intimidated by his opposition. As a pacifist, his intent is to confront the effort to intimidate nonviolently. As he crosses the square toward his hotel with a small contingent of supporters, a wildly careening small truck bears down on the group and a man in the back of the truck strikes the deputy over the head with a pipe. The truck then quickly disappears. The deputy is rushed to the hospital and although his condition is briefly nip-and-tuck, the blow proves fatal, in the end. Although Montand’s character is thus effectively eliminated from the narrative rather early in the film, Montand gets additional screen time by way of flashbacks that illuminate, among other things, his relationship with his wife (Irene Papas).

The public outcry demands an investigation, though the intent of the rightist leaders is a pro forma whitewashing of the events as an unfortunate accident. To that purpose, the General appoints an Examining Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) thought to be adequately sympathetic to the right wing and easily manageable. The bespectacled Magistrate surprises all, however, and runs a legitimate investigation – with the help of a relentless reporter. As the investigation begins, the Magistrate gently admonishes witnesses who hint at conspiracy, but as the evidence begins to mount, his professionalism forces him to confront the truth. Most viewers find it downright up-lifting when the Magistrate begins issuing indictments against the conspirators. In the real-life story on which the film was based, those implicated by the investigation later (April, 1967) seized control of the country and formed a military dictatorship – rather than quietly relinquish power.

Themes: For conspiracy buffs, this film provides plenty of bone to chew on. Although ostensibly set in Greece, the film could just as well be related to the slew of political assassinations of three charismatic leftist leaders in the United States that marked the 1960’s – President John F. Kennedy, his brother and presidential contender Robert F. Kennedy, and the eloquent civil rights leader Martin Luther King. Obviously the film is primarily about the tendency of those in power to abuse that power in quelling legitimate political opposition, even to the point of organizing and/or permitting by negligence assassination of opposition leaders. The author of the book on which the film was based, Vassilis Vassilikos, understood the generalizability of his film, commenting that he intended to “show the mechanism of political crime in our time.”

Production Values: Z received high praise in 1968/9 not only from people with leftist sympathies but for its cinematic merits as well. At times, it is tense and suspenseful, though there have been better films based on government conspiracies and cover-ups since – notably All the President’s Men (1976). The ineptitude of the conspirators is a bit too blatant. One only wishes that all such conspiracies were conducted only by men as incompetent as those portrayed here. The exposition of the lies is sometimes provided through pitifully transparent dialogue. Notwithstanding, Z won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes as well as the Best Actor award for Trintignant (who was very effective but who has done better work elsewhere). That was followed by five Academy Award nominations at the Oscars and two trophies in the Best Foreign Film and Best Film Editing categories. The jump-cuts utilized during the riot scenes illustrate why Francoise Bonnot was honored for her creative editing technique. Z was just the second foreign film ever nominated for an Oscar in the Best Film category and is one of only seven foreign films so nominated all-time. High praise indeed!

Besides the fine performances by Trintignant and Montand, the one turned in by Irene Papas as the Deputy’s wife is noteworthy as well. Her other film credits include The Guns of Navaroone (1961), Zorba the Greek (1964), and Anne of a Thousand Days (1969). Yves Montand had countless film credits, but some of the most notable include La Guerre est Finie (1966), State of Siege (1972), and that marvelous pair of films, Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring. Trigtignant’s extensive filmography can likewise only be hinted at here, but includes And God Created Woman (1956), Bad Girls (1968), The Conformist (1970), La Nuit de Varennes (1982), and Red (1994), which is part of the Three Colors triology.

Bottom-Line: Z is in French with English subtitles and has a running time of 127 minutes. It is rated M (mature audiences), parental guidance recommended. Although its content is political, its style drew heavily on Hollywood action and gangster films to produce a taut drama. It remains intriguing today although its luster is just a bit dimmed by the availability of better political conspiracy films from Hollywood. The message relating to the omnipresent risk of abuse of power by those in control can never be repeated too often.


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You might want to check out these other excellent films from Greece:

Eternity and a Day
Landscape in the Mist


Recommend this product? Yes


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