Although it is seldom seen today, in 1970 Constantin Costa-Gavras' "Z" picked up both the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Picture and an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film. In the wake of the John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations of the 1960s and fueled by the later Watergate scandal, the film had tremendous resonance with American audiences, becoming one of the highest grossing foreign language films ever released in that market.
Based on the novel by Vassilis Vassilikos, which was itself based on the 1966 "Lambrakis Affair" in Greece, "Z" is at once a political thriller and satire. Set in an unnamed nation, it presents a politician who is strongly critical of American and Russian nuclear build up and his nation's participation in it. Denounced by the status quo as a communist, he is met with civic obstruction when he arrives to give a speech and afterward is struck down and killed by a speeding truck in the streets. A drunk driving accident, according to local officials. An assassination, according to his entourage.
Although the film has a somewhat slow and uncertain build, once fully underway it becomes a rapid-fire series of sharply edited scenes in which the sloppy assassination plot is unraveled by a dispassionate magistrate sent to conduct an investigation--an investigation plagued by assaults on witnesses and civic cover-up. But in such a corrupt society, can the full truth ever be known?
Director Costa-Gavras walks a very fine line here, presenting the characters as archetypes but endowing them yet endowing with enough human emotion to engage our interests and sympathies. And the cast is remarkable, with Yves Montond, Irene Papas, and Jean-Louis Trintignant particularly notable. The script is at once chilling and covertly comic, jeering at officialdom around the corners of its more serious business, and the overall look of the film--particularly in the violent crowd scenes--is truly memorable.
The film has been restored to a pristine condition in its original widescreen and the DVD offers a number of language subtitles (including English) in easy-to-read yellow script. Bonus features are slight, but include the original trailer, samples of restoration work, and an extremely interesting conversation between novelist Vassilikos and director Costa-Gavras. Consta-Gravas also offers an audio-commentary--in French, which will be frustrating for those who (like me) do not speak the language.
Although some viewers may not even notice the satirical tone of the film, and while some will be put off by its distinctly liberal slant, I think most viewers--including those who don't normally care for foreign film--will find "Z" a fascinating ride, particularly if they enjoyed the likes of JFK or THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. Time may have dimmed the origins of the piece, but sadly the subject of governmental corruption and the mendacity of powerbrokers remains as timely as ever.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
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