44 Days of Paranoia #38: Z (dir by Costa-Gavras)


(SPOILERS!)

For today’s entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take a look at the 1969 political thriller, Z.

Though Z is based on events that actually happened in Greece and features a  soundtrack of Greek music that manages to be both haunting and lively at the same time, the film itself takes place in an unnamed, European country.  While the country is officially a democracy, it’s actually controlled by a cabal of politicians and military leaders who use fear and intimidation to maintain power.

As the film opens, The Deputy (played by the charismatic Yves Montand) and his aides arrive in a small city.  That night, the Deputy is scheduled to speak a rally for nuclear disarmament.  As we’re shown from the start of the film, the outspoken Deputy is considered to be a threat by both his country’s government and the United States as well.  Despite having received word that an attempt is going to be made on his life, the Deputy speaks at the rally.  After the rally, as the Deputy walks across the street, a truck comes out of nowhere.  A man in the back of the truck strikes the deputy with a club, killing him.  The official story is that the Deputy was simply hit and killed by a drunk driver but the Deputy’s followers know otherwise.

Realizing that the Deputy has the potential to be an even more powerful symbol in death than he was when he was alive, the government assigns the Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignat) to investigate the Deputy’s death.  Since the Magistrate is known to have political ambitions of his own, it’s assumed that he’ll simply rubber stamp the government’s story.  However, the Magistrate surprises everyone by turning out to be a man of integrity.  Working with a journalist (Jacques Perrin), his investigation uncovers a conspiracy and leads to the indictment of several high level military officials.  In a scene that will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a movie, the Deputy’s wife (Irene Pappas) is told that the men responsible for her husband’s murder will be held responsible…

And this is where you would normally expect the film to end.

However, Z goes on for another few minutes and it’s those final minutes that elevate this film from just being a well-made thriller to being one of the most effective political films ever made.  The film’s narrator informs us that the government was subsequently overthrown by the military.  The indictments were dismissed.  The Magistrate was reassigned to other duties.  The “drunk drivers” who were officially held responsible for the Deputy’s death were given light sentences.  As for the Deputy’s loyal aides, some were forced into exile while another was killed while running from police.  Finally, we’re told:

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

As the film ends, a long list of everything and everyone that has been banned rolls up the screen.  It’s a devastating scene, one that firmly establishes that the greatest enemy of dictatorship (as well as the first victim) is freedom of thought.

However, even before that ending, Z had already established itself as a powerful film.  I usually dread watching politically themed films because, for the most part, I find them to be drearily heavy-handed.  Well, make no doubt about it,  Z is a very political film and it’s also a very heavy-handed film.  However, it’s so well-acted and well-directed that I hardly minded the fact that the film was essentially trying to indoctrinate me.  It’s rare that you find a polemical film that also works as entertainment but Z is one of those rare films.

Z made history in 1970 when it was the first film to be nominated by the Academy for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture of the Year.  Watching it today, it’s easy to understand why Z was so honored.  It remains an exciting thriller, a powerful political statement, and a bold call to action.

Z, incidentally, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.  However, best picture was won by Midnight Cowboy.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed
  29. A Face In The Crowd
  30. Nixon
  31. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  32. The Purge
  33. The Stepford Wives
  34. Saboteur
  35. A Dark Truth
  36. The Fugitive
  37. The Day of Jackal

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