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Z is a 1969 French language political thriller directed by Costa Gavras, with a screenplay by Gavras and Jorge Semprún, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Vassilis Vassilikos. The film presents a thinly fictionalized account of the events surrounding the assassination of democratic Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. With its satirical view of Greek politics, its dark sense of humor, and its downbeat ending, the film captures the outrage about the military dictatorship that ruled Greece at the time of its making. Z stars Jean-Louis Trintignant as the investigating magistrate (an analogue of Christos Sartzetakis, who 22 years later was appointed President of Greece by democratically elected parliamentarians). International stars Yves Montand and Irene Papas also appear, but despite their star billing have very little screen time compared to the other principals. Jacques Perrin, who co-produced, plays a key role. The film's title refers to a popular Greek protest slogan (Greek: Ζει, IPA: [ˈzi]) meaning "he (Lambrakis) lives". The film had a total of 3,952,913 admissions in France and was the 4th highest grossing film of the year.
And yet Costa-Gravas had the presence of mind to turn the tepid story of thinly-veiled police corruption in 1963 Greece into Z, and somehow the world bought into it.
Nominated for five Oscars, Z would eventually win Best Foreign Film and Best Film Editing, which will forever baffle me, as Z is one of the least competently edited films I've ever seen. That said, 1969 is an awful year on the whole for movies -- only Midnight Cowboy and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are standouts, along with the un-Oscared Medium Cool (similar to and far better than Z), which also came out that year. Hell, Hello Dolly! got a nomination for Best Picture. Go figure.
The story, based on actual events, has Montand's left-wing Greek politico (though the film is in French and stars mostly French actors) assassinated by the aforementioned means, and despite what must be hundreds of eyewitnesses, the cops can't make a case. Jean-Louis Trintignant's judge investigates the case with barely enough effort to keep his eyes open (both the actor and the character), and thus the audience feels his sleepiness as well. In fact, it isn't until a nosy journalist pokes in that the truth comes out. And a horde of absolutely idiotic conspirators don't help the cover-up, either. Example (paraphrased) -- Crook: 'Today's paper has an incriminating picture of me so I came to the hospital to yell at the witness!' Judge: 'Today's paper wasn't delivered. Who told you to lie?' Crook: 'Oooooooh no! I am caught!'
This level of 'edge of your seat action' (as the newly-released DVD cover states) continues for two hours, as the Frenchies smoke, drink, and mumble their way through the whole affair. There's no 'intrigue,' no matter what the critics say. The acting is bad, the direction is dull, and the script remains at the level of an encyclopedia entry on Greece.
It's difficult to muster much enthusiasm for Z, no matter how acclaimed it is, especially considering that 1976 would bring the seminal political cover-up movie, All the President's Men. In that movie, Alan J. Pakula knew what he was doing in his handling of true-story material, and he didn't even have a murder to work with. Sheesh.
The Criterion DVD release includes commentary from Peter Cowie, and both new and archival interviews with Costa-Gavras and cinematographer Raoul Coutard.