Following the murder of a prominent leftist, an investigator tries to uncover the truth while government officials attempt to cover up their roles.
OSCAR winner for Best Editing and for Best Foreign Language Film (ALGERIA)
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Change is in the air in 1960s France (standing in for 1960s Greece). A growing pacifist-socialist movement is becoming more and more popular, and if there's one thing ruling militaristic right-wing governments hate more than pacifist movement's, it's socialist one.
Despite all obstacles set in its path, the party and its charismatic leader (Yves Montrand) seems certain to take power in the next elections leaving the government and its police no choice but to move from passive-aggressive obstruction to out-and-out aggressiveness, culminating in an assault on the party's leader himself.
This kind of based-on-real-life political film can be very tricky to pull off. The same impulse that compels a filmmaker to make this kind of film usually keeps them too close to the material to make anything watchable by any but true believers. They usually end up screeching to the choir about all the wrongs and injustices they've observed rather than tell a story.
Anyone who does have an overwhelming desire to make one of those films should first be forced to sit down and watch Costa Gavras' "Z."
As sharp a point of view as it has—and for all its merits, "Z" is neither subtle nor balanced in the point it is making—Gavras masterpiece is also as enthralling a political thriller as anyone has yet made. Even if you completely agree with the police in their actions, you will be riveted to discover exactly how events play out when the Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) brought in to place the patina of impartiality on the official white-wash of the assault, instead begins investigating the government's own claims.
It mainly works because of the high style Gavras brings the film to life with. Not the slick polished work of modern thrillers, but one filled with an exacting vision and an eye for detail and craft. All of the subtlety that was taken from the story and its point of view are placed in the characters themselves and in the way Gavras relates them to the audience.
The hardiest obstacle most narrative films have to overcome is depth of characterization. The cold fact is in order to keep the pace of a plot up (and keep the audience interested) films have little time to devote to true depth unless they either have very little plot or very few characters and "Z" has plenty of both. It's doubly impressive then how much mileage Gavras gets out his ensemble, built mostly out of small characters who come and go through the film as needed, with no one (except possibly The Magistrate) able to claim the top spot of protagonist (or antagonist for that matter, with much blame to go around many people).
It's a little bit of a smoke and mirrors act – with so little time to devote to the character's Gavras is left with small anecdotes and hints at the real lives they lead when they're not taking part in revolutions and cover-ups: The Deputy's Wife's (Irene Papas) realization of her husband's infidelity and the possible mixed feeling it might engender for his fate; ruffian-for-hire Vago's (Renato Salvatori) secret personal life that his employer's almost certainly wouldn't take well to. Much of it is left to the viewer to make real characters of, but even the hints of depth add a great deal of richness to Gavras film.
And there's a lot of richness to behold. Gavras has created as slick a thriller you'll ever see, while hardly ever romanticizing his subject. His heroes are personally flawed and his action set pieces are filled with men scrabbling with their fingers and kicking from the ground like intent school children rather than the elegant choreography more romantic films prefer.
The only thing that keeps "Z" from real greatness is its single-mindedness. For all the artfulness at hand, Gavras et al. only seemed to have one thing on their minds when they were making the film, which may stand to reason but limits the final overall product.
For all that, it's still an important film and likely to stay one for as long as we have governments. More than that, it is enthralling and relentlessly entertaining without ever giving one iota from it intent in the name of cheap thrills. And that's an example all filmmakers, and audiences, should take dearly to heart.