Z (1969)


(director: Costas-Gravas; screenwriters: from the novel by Vassili Vassilikos/Jorge Semprún; cinematographer: Raoul Coutard; editor: Francoise Bonnot; music: Mikis Theodorakis; cast: Yves Montand (The Deputy), Irene Papas (Helene, the Deputy’s wife), Jean-Louis Trintignant (The Examining Magistrate), Jacques Perrin (Photojournalist), Charles Denner (Manuel), Francois Périer (Public Prosecutor), Pierre Dux (The General), Georges Geret (Nick), Julien Guiomar (The Colonel), Bernard Fresson (Matt), Marcel Bozzuffi (Vago), Magali Noël (Nick’s Sister), Renato Salvatori (Yago), Jean Bouise (Georges Pirou), Jean-François Gobbi (Jimmy the Boxer), ; Runtime: 127; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Jacques Perrin/Ahmed Rachedi; Wellspring; 1969-France/Algeria-dubbed in English)

“Mikis Theodorakis provides a stirring musical score of traditional Greek music.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

In ancient Greece Zei means “he lives.” The Greek-born director Costas-Gravas (“Betrayed”/”Missing”/”The Sleeping Car Murders”) based the crowd-pleasing left-wing political thriller on the novel by Vassili Vassilikos and it’s cleverly written by the Spaniard Jorge Semprún. The film is based on the 1963 killing at a political rally in Thessaloniki of the independent socialist pacifist parliament deputy Lambrakis, in which the investigation by a young magistrate named Christos Sartzetakis uncovered a network of police and government corruption. Gavras sets it in an unnamed Mediterranean country that’s clearly Greece (it was shot in Algeria and backed by the French). The film is a reaction to the oppressive right-wing military junta in Greece run by the Colonels. Mikis Theodorakis provides a stirring musical score of traditional Greek music. Interestingly enough, he was under arrest in Greece at the time.

The film opens with a peace rally against the Atomic bomb where the Deputy Minister, Z. (Yves Montand), a pacifist medical doctor and member of the opposition party, is to speak. The police allow goons to freely attack the liberals attending the rally, and the violence intensifies when a passing van has a thug named Vago (Marcel Bozzuffi) severely club the deputy while the driver Yago (Renato Salvatori) speeds away. The police claim it was a hit-and-run, but when the deputy dies on the operating table the hospital reports it as a crime and the death due to a bludgeoning. The police think a young magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) will not make waves and appoint him to take charge of the investigation, but are mistaken when he treats it as a murder case and not as an accident as the government claims. The persistent judge uncovers the violence at the rally and that the murder was initiated by a secret organization supported by the government and the police, as he gets help from an independent journalist (Jacques Perrin) just looking for a scoop. The reporter finds for him an eye-witness to the murder, a casket-maker named Nick (Georges Geret), who refuses to back down from his testimony despite being threatened and then assaulted.

The military conspiracy is exposed, and the thugs Vago and Yago are convicted. Z.’s party wins the next election. The army officials, however, are only given suspended sentences, and a short time later the military has a successful coup d’état.

The film was extremely popular at the time and took in many festival awards around the world (including an Oscar as the Best Foreign Language Film of 1969). It was acclaimed for its political message against totalitarianism, for being entertaining and for being accessible. By recreating the murder so dramatically, it took on the look of an American thriller.