Conceived by the Greek-born filmmaker Costa-Gavras as a celluloid indictment of the right-wing junta that had seized power in his native country, Z was a surprise international hit fueled by a few choice suspense sequences, jagged editing, handsome color images lensed by the great Raoul Coutard, and the topicality niche it occupied as an entertainment spun out of a real-life political assassination. Forty years on, it’s still an eye-catching, fast-paced watch, but the plaudits it won as an uncompromising thriller and landmark cinema seem as shaky as the film’s villainous military officers’ insistence that its central murder was an accident. Not a true thriller as much as an investigative procedural with a semblance of geopolitical cred, Z often relies on some slick camouflage of shopworn genre standbys, and perhaps because its pacifist-leaning dissidents made for less problematic heroes than the militant guerillas of The Battle of Algiers, Hollywood bestowed on it two Oscars and a Best Picture nomination. (A French-Algerian co-production dramatizing police beatings and government-sanctioned murder had the necessary distance from domestic strife to win Academy approval.)
Adapting a novel that thinly fictionalized the brazen 1963 killing of Greek opposition leader Gregoris Lambrakis in front of throngs of witnesses and passive police, Costa-Gavras begins the film with an anti-disclaimer that proclaims its intentional resemblance to reality. (“Greece” is not spoken until the final voiceover; events are often given their historical dates but the main characters no proper names, lending a Kafkaesque, abstract undercurrent to the scenario.) Yves Montand plays the Lambrakis figure, “the doctor,” a principled, charismatic anti-NATO leftist who arrives in a major city to find that conservative officials have maneuvered to deny him a venue to deliver a plea for peace; low-key but determined, he and his coterie improvise new arrangements, but he is the target of a drive-by clubbing in the street immediately after his speech. While the victim lies dying, his associates argue the merits of seeking justice or revenge, and the military police and Royal Court conspire to cover up the death as a drunk-driving accident.
Of the triumvirate of stars in the cast, only Montand makes a lingering impression as the pacifistic martyr; as his grieving, semi-estranged wife, Irene Papas could have been billed as Special Guest Mourner, weeping and sniffing her departed husband’s aftershave lotion. When the film’s second hour shifts to the pursuit of the truth by a straitlaced but zealously fair-minded magistrate, Jean-Louis Trintignant hides behind his glasses, ostentatiously striving for dullness. But Z isn’t a star-driven affair; camera relentlessly in motion, it chugs along efficiently, with Trintignant’s judge almost accidentally uncovering evidence of official complicity in the bloody plot. Two action set pieces, one with a Montand colleague flinging himself onto the assassin’s vehicle after the assault, another where a car speedily pursues an opposition lawyer on sidewalks and through a park, supply the juice, along with a versatile synthesized/trad-folk score compiled from the work of Mikis Theodorakis, a political prisoner in Greece at the time.
If one can detect a beating heart in the film rather than a thrumming mechanical one, it’s not in the near-lampoons of the fascist-leaning brass—“antibodies against the ideological malady” of the Reds, rants one general—or the gleeful sociopath with a taste for teenage boys (Marcel Bozzufi) who swings the lethal club, but the assorted shopkeepers and deliverymen who either take their antipathy against socialists to the level of being paid goons for the right, or like the blue-collar witness (George Géret) who persists in testifying from a post-beating hospital, keep a measure of humanist instinct. (Though contemporary wingnut manipulation of red-state America freshens this angle, Géret’s scenes nearly fizzle with an excess of populist comedy and a farcical stratagem by the assassin; a Frank Capra film nearly breaks out.) The film’s title is an ancient Greek signifier for “He lives,” and its more conventional elements are overcome by a core of idealism and fury that, like the Montand hero’s deathbed heart, shows “incredible resistance.”