When a film opens with a disclaimer (or, more correctly, a "claimer") that reads, "Similarity to actual persons or events is entirely intentional," it's a pretty good sign the filmmakers aren't planning on pulling any punches, and legendary political-thriller auteur Costa-Gavras sets out to do that with each film he makes. Although he's spent more than three decades taking cinematic pot-shots at corrupt, authoritarian regimes and right-wing conspiracies the world over (in films like STATE OF SIEGE, MISSING and BETRAYED), this Oscar-winning early effort remains the most celebrated and controversial film of his career.
The plot is based on an actual 1963 incident in Greece, in which humanist Gregorios Lambrakis was murdered by members of a Christian nationalist sect with ties to the ruling political party. The names and places have changed, but as I mentioned earlier, the director is not afraid to point the finger at the real culprits. Thankfully, this is no stale docu-drama recounting the actual events (which ultimately led to a backlash from the guilty party, who invoked martial law and took over anyway), but a slick and intense political thriller with a courageous moral core.
When a liberal senator (Yves Montand), running for office in an unnamed Mediterranean nation, arrives to speak at a party rally, he faces the first big obstacle in what will soon be a doomed campaign. His platform, based on an anti-nuke, anti-NATO stance, doesn't go over well with the conservative ruling party, and also provokes the ire of a violent, outspoken nationalist group, whose irrational fear of a growing Communist threat is fueled by government rhetoric. Turns out the nationalists have their hooks in everything and everyone, including the owner of the auditorium in which the rally was scheduled to take place. Forced to move the meeting to a much smaller hall, the senator and his staff contend with an overflow crowd in the streets, a lack of police protection, and an agonizing walk back to their hotel in which they are attacked and beaten by nationalist thugs. The attack - ruled by the police to be an "accident" - puts the senator in a coma from which he never recovers.
It is only after the autopsy - and irrefutable evidence of foul play - that the case is re-opened, with the investigation handed over to a conservative judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) assumed to be on the government's side. Unfortunately for the perpetrators and those protecting them, the judge remains steadfastly on the side of justice, no matter how many enemies he makes along the way. With the help of a persistent reporter (Jacques Perrin), the judge uncovers a plot that reaches all the way to the top of the national police force.
I went into this one expecting a bag of names, places and events so complex I'd need a flowchart to keep up. Thankfully, my fears were unfounded. Costa-Gavras is more than just a cinematic agitator doing battle against The Man; he's also a gifted storyteller, who takes great pains to bring the interwoven elements of a vast conspiracy down to the level of the human beings involved. Not one of the characters are depicted as mere black and white pieces on a political chessboard; instead, they're infused with real humanity - for better or worse, it turns out. Cleverly edited flashback sequences not only provide important clues, but also offer a window into the characters' psyches. I believe it's the director's greatest strength - to distill monolithic, faceless concepts, institutions and conspiracies down to their individual elements: real people with real motives. At the same time, this is not a film about people standing around in the town square spouting rhetoric at each other; this is first and foremost a thriller, with a swift pace, tight suspense and often savage violence.
Despite the Oscar wins and endless critical praise, Z had never really received a proper video presentation - but that's all changed, thanks to Wellspring's Masterworks Edition DVD, which compares well with some of Criterion's treatments of similar landmark films. The film has been beautifully remastered (see the supplemental materials for a before & after comparison), with optional 5.1 and stereo French tracks to boot. The surround has clean separation without being too obtrusive, and gives a lot of weight to the groovy bouzouki score. (Composer Mikis Theodorakis was barred by the Greek government from participating, so he just authorized the use of his earlier work.) An additional commentary track from Costa-Gavras (in French with subtitles) reveals some of the challenges he faced in bringing this story to light - and draws some interesting parallels between the filmmaker's own struggles and those of the characters he depicts. Additional extras include an interview with the director and writer Vassili Vassilikos, on whose book the film is based, the trailer and the aforementioned restoration comparison.
Digital miracles aside, it's still amazing how Z holds up so well after 35-plus years; in fact, is seems all the more relevant today. Regardless of your political leanings, you gotta give it up for Costa-Gavras. The man knows how to use his art as a weapon - if not always for real change, at least as a dramatic reminder of how the best of ideals can go horribly wrong.