27 July 2009

Z (Dir. Costa Gavras, 1969, France/Algeria) - 'Nom, prenom, profession...'

A remarkably influential zeitgeist film?

Concurrently, the military banned long hair on males; mini-skirts; Sophocles; Tolstoy; Euripedes; smashing glasses after drinking toasts; labour strikes; Aristophanes; Ionesco; Sartre; Albee; Pinter; freedom of the press; sociology; Beckett; Dostoevsky; modern music; popular music; the new mathematics; and the letter "Z", which in ancient Greek means "He is alive!"
- The closing moments of 'Z'

Arguably one of the key political film makers of his generation, Greek born Costa-Gavras drew on the real life tragic assassination of left wing Greek politician Gregoris Lambrakis in 1963 to make ‘Z’, a radical critique of state sanctioned terrorism. Populist outrage against the establishment echoed across much of cinema in the sixties - the articulate ardour with which the state was deconstructed and magnified in the films of Godard, Gavras and Pontecorvo concealed the ideological intellect of a romanticised counter culture revolution backed by a revival in Marxist sentiments.

Godard's regular cinematographer, Raoul Coutard (operating the camera) and director Costa Gavras (right) on location in Algeria where the film was shot with co-operation from the Algerian government.

The inability of some films to transcend the burdens of a zeitgeist like the sixties renders them historically specific and transforms them into a cultural document. Yet many of the films Godard made in the sixties seem refreshingly contemporary even today and neither does the political radicalism on display feel pretentious. However, one of the potential problems with film makers who imitated the oppositional approach and deconstructive style pioneered by Godard is that many of these films now appear slightly passé, purely because signatures of original and personal authorial expression like elliptical editing have become subsumed into the mainstream. The subliminal inserts and discontinuous cross cutting between the present and past are some of the devices which today feel a little obvious by Gavras. Rather than create ambiguity, they draw attention to themselves which one could argue is purposefully self reflexive but on the other hand somewhat melodramatic.

French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant as the unpredictable examining magistrate is given the arduous task of investigating the assassination of a prominent left wing politician played by Yves Montand in a brief but commanding role. It doesn't come as much of a surprise to find that the magistrate uncovers a political conspiracy which involves premeditated murder and the collusion between right wing elements of the government, the police, the military, conservative religious groups and agitated members of the general public. The Deputy (Yves Montand) who is leader of the opposition party in this unnamed country (obviously Greece) is assassinated at a political rally in which the police and military are represented as accomplices to the crime.

The artwork produced for the film captured the uncertainty of the era with disturbing clarity.

The number of high level political assassinations which had become a virtual characteristic of the political scene in the sixties makes the cold blooded assassination of The Deputy achingly plausible and very real. The opposition argues for the abolition of foreign bases and attacks the foreign policy of the government as fundamentally flawed. Threatened by the possibility of a communist revolution, the ruling elite retaliate with widespread acts of physical and ideological state sanctioned repression - such terrorism directed at the opposition is perpetrated by those most vulnerable in society, in this case it is the god fearing working class.

Admittedly 'Z' is a very wordy film and at times feels like a fierce polemic; the exchange and delivery of dialogue unfolds at a relentless pace, making the idea of political argument very immediate and demonstrative of the way in which many overly confrontational political films can be undermined by their own sincerity. Nevertheless, the vehement political anger that runs throughout 'Z' provides a refreshing anecdote to our contemporary apolitical age in which the mass media continues to 'manufacture consent' (Noam Chomsky) and fulfills the needs of a barren capitalist corporate ideology. This is just one of the many accomplished political thrillers to have been made in the anarchic 60s and it rightfully so continues to be celebrated for its unashamed honesty in the way in which it tells us how and why we should resist the powers that be.


  1. This is a pretty good movie, but as you say, has aged a bit. The people at the screening clapped and roared during the incrimination phase as if it was some great climax to a slick thriller.

    It was a good thriller indeed, but more relevant only to its age.


  2. Great review!

    We're linking to your article for Academy Monday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!