Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Twenty-Six

#26 — Z (Costa-Gavras, 1969)
I had the misfortune of starting in completely the wrong place with Greek-born, French resident director Costa-Gavras. By the time I was properly paying attention, Costa-Gavras was mired in heavy Hollywood dramas that were deadened by their approach to big issues. They’re not necessarily uniformly miserable, but films such as Music Box and Mad City give no sense of a filmmaker who can shift out of one grinding gear. I had him pegged as a fairly monotone creator, an impression that might have plenty of supporting evidence but doesn’t fairly take into account his best work. I haven’t seen every frame he’s shot and assembled into finished product, but I still feel confident that the “best work” term is properly assigned to the widely celebrated 1969 film Z. It is everything I myopically accused Costa-Gavras of being unable to deliver: witty, sharp, nuanced and vibrant with a sly satire that thrillingly illuminates the film’s major issues.

And the issues are major, indeed. Based on 1966 Vassilis Vassilikos novel, the film is a thinly fictionalized account of the assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis, in 1963. In particular, Z digs into the corruption that can rewrite the truth of an entire event. When Lambrakis (Yves Montand) is fatally struck down in the street following a speech calling for nuclear disarmament, the military leadership of the country rapidly begins the process of covering up their culpability in the act, blaming it instead on a random drunk driver. The film then follows an investigating magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) as he unravels the various lies, slowly but surely peeking into the cracks in the falsehoods that the ruling power wasn’t able to effectively plaster over. The difficulty the examiner faces is maddening, but there is the embedded hope that eventually justice will prevail, that manipulation can only go so far, especially when there’s a legion of people who can offer competing testimony, either from forensic evidence or simply what they saw with their own eyes.

At least, that bend towards hope seems to be the trajectory of the film until Costa-Gavras upends it entirely with a brief closing that makes it clear that devious rulers can always find a way to erase irritating information and individuals. This final turn of events isn’t the cause of dramatic hand-wringing, the way it might have been, frankly, in later Costa-Gavras films. Instead, it’s presenting almost blithely, a rueful, seriocomic denouement. The director has effectively kept the film taut for two hours only to let it deflate at the moment of its greatest outrage. It’s arguably a risky choice, but it’s absolutely perfect, emphasizing the great divide between those at different ends of the political hierarchy. For someone like the magistrate, it takes monumental effort to make any sort of progress towards truth, but for those at the top, eliminating their problems is as easy as brushing specks off their metaphorical shoulders. By daring to de-emphasize the importance of its closing blow, Z manages a far more assured assertion of its damning points.

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