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Costa-Gavras’s "Z": an Excellent Thriller

by BEN SONNENBERG

The conspiracy thriller Z by Costa-Gavras – starring Yves Montand, Irene Papas and Jean-Louis Trintignant – has just been released as part of the Criterion Collection in a new Rialto Pictures print. Adapted by the director and Jorge Semprún from the excellent novel by Vasilis Vasilikos, Z tells of the assassination of a liberal Greek politician, The Deputy, by a cabal of right-wing military men supported by the royal family with help from the CIA.

With an exciting score by Mikis Theodorakis, Costa-Gavras tells a complicated story in a series of very short scenes (few last longer than three minutes). The Deputy (Montand), arrives in “an unnamed city in Northern Greece” to address an audience of young ban-the -bomb activists. With his noble bearing, concerned expression and wrinkled store-bought suit, he is the unambiguous embodiment of good. He brushes aside death threats and other dire warnings. He will not be deterred from speaking out against NATO, nuclear arms and the war in Vietnam.

His enemies, likewise unambiguous, are military officers in snappy uniforms, belted and beribboned, and prosperous politicians, many in tuxedos. They’ve conspired to foment a riot, which can later be blamed on the students. The Deputy will be murdered, their thugs will see to that. In the presence of a phalanx of security police, the riot comes off and within the first half-hour The Deputy’s out of the picture, literally at least.

Only things don’t go off quite as planned. The chief villains, Yago and Vago (Renato Salvatori and Marcel Bozzufi), badly mess up. They kidnap the wrong politician, beat him up but fail to kill him and then let him escape. Next, when Yago and Vago come back to finish The Deputy off, a photojournalist (Jacques Perrin) snaps pictures of them doing the deed. Enter the movie’s true hero, the Examining Magistrate (Trintignant). He not only trips up Yago and Vago, but he gets them to name their bosses and unravels the conspiracy (which includes the sinister organization CROC! – it stands for Christian Royalist Organization against Communism). Despite warnings from the government not to go too far, the Magistrate brings all the villains to trial and the narrative wraps up, in true thriller fashion, just as rapidly and neatly as that.

In a coda to the movie, the Journalist narrates a slide-show that tells a different story more or less true to historical events. Yago and Vago serve short prison terms; key witnesses are murdered, disappeared, “commit suicide” or “die of heart attacks” while in the police custody; others are pardoned or have their sentences commuted. Before the opposition can win the next election, the military seize power and the Magistrate is dismissed. Next a female voice-over informs us the Journalist was sentenced to prison for “disclosing official secrets.” And she reads to us from the ridiculous list of items banned by the Junta.

Z opened in New York in December 1969, perfect timing for such a film. The film had been a hit in France (it won the Jury Prize at Cannes) and it was a hit here (it won an Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film). And no wonder. The good characters are all so very good and the bad ones so very bad, and it is so easy to tell them apart. It suited the mood of the country. We’d just seen the Democratic convention in Chicago. Some of us had been there and many knew the smell of tear-gas. The movie encouraged the feeling that protest was good and authority bad, and that right-thinking people were somehow universally united.

I first saw Z at a screening with some Greek friends, among them Melina Mercouri. They applauded enthusiastically. A long-time lover of Greece, I applauded too of course. And yet… Not for the first time, Vincent Canby came to my help. In his New York Times review, Canby wrote:

A small part of me. tends to rebel against the film’s carefully programmed responses, including the sight of Irene Papas, who can be a very fine actress, as the doctor’s widow. The film thus employs for easy effect Miss Papas’s professional image of perpetual bereavement. Without telling us much of what the assassinated doctor believes (except that he is against missiles and for peace), the film makes us grieve by shocking us with graphic details of brutal beatings and civil disorders.

Just as the fascists in the film appeal to their audiences by oversimplification, by generalities, by fear, so does the film appeal to us by its use of rather ordinary suspense drama – a car speeding crazily down a sidewalk in an attempt to run over a witness. Ever since the days of the swastika, I’ve been leery of symbols designed to elicit automatic emotional responses – even leery of the peace symbol and of “Z” itself, which, I’m told, stands for the Greek words, “he is alive” and is employed by the assassinated doctor’s followers in the film.

Canby concluded: “A lot of people are going to become emotionally unstuck about “Z,” seeing it as a strong political statement, which is an unnecessary ruse to ennoble sheer entertainment.”

In the 40 years since Z premiered, its virtues have become more prominent than its flaws. In the light of many recent events – Pinochet in Chile for one – Z seems positively prophetic, an international character reinforced by its having been shot in Algiers (6 years after independence) by a great French cinematographer and with (Papas excepted) superb French actors. I have space here to mention but three: Trintignant as the incorruptible Magistrate, Georges Géret as an honest citizen and, my favorite, the versatile Marcel Bozzufi as the lethal but frolicsome Vago.

Z may be “sheer entertainment” (and very good entertainment, too). And that is, to quote the immortal Preston Sturges at the end of his Sullivan’s Travels, “better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

Z,
France, 1969,
127 minutes, 1 Disc,
The Criterion Collection, $39.95.
New interviews with Costa-Gavras and Raoul Coutard

Archival interviews with Costa-Gavras; producer-actor Jacques Perrin; actors Yves Montand, Irene Papas, and Jean-Louis Trintignant; and Vassilis Vassilikos, author of the book Z

PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Armond White

BEN SONNENBERG is the author of Lost Property: Memoirs & Confessions of a Bad Boy, and the founder/editor of Grand Street. In the 1960s he was active in raising money in New York for opponents of The Colonels and he devoted many pages of his magazine to Modern Greek literature. He can be reached at harapos@panix.com.

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BEN SONNENBERG is the author of Lost Property: Memoirs & Confessions of a Bad Boy, and the founder/editor of Grand Street. He can be reached at harapos@panix.com.

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