Tuesday 16 April 2019

Movie Review: Z (1969)

A political conspiracy thriller, Z delves into the sordid world of government plots to silence dissent by any means necessary.

An unnamed country, presumed to be Greece, is governed by shadowy right-wing military types operating a pseudo-democracy and proclaiming independence from any ideology. An opposition left-leaning pacifist parliamentarian known as the Deputy (Yves Montand) arrives at a countryside town to make a speech, despite death threats. He and his handlers are stymied in trying to find a venue, eventually settling for a union hall and installing speakers to broadcast into an adjacent public square.

Supporters, agitators, and ranks of police officers congregate. After delivering the speech the Deputy is assaulted by two hired goons, severely injured and rushed to hospital. His wife Helene (Irene Papas) is numbed by the incident, while surgeons fight to save her husband's life. The Examining Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) starts a methodical investigation, and despite pressure to sweep the incident under the carpet he doggedly pursues all available leads to uncover proof of a plot.

Based on the 1963 attack on Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis and the subsequent investigation by respected Magistrate (and later Greek President) Christos Sartzetakis, Z (a Greek graffiti symbol for "he lives", used in reference to Lambrakis) is a hard-hitting, expertly crafted condemnation of dirty politics. Director and co-writer Costa-Gavras creates an environment of gritty street tension dominated by a government determined to maintain it's version of discipline, and opposed by a small group of idealistic politicians and journalists willing to take disproportionate risks.

In government offices bands of sweaty men (and they are all men) representing the military, police and intelligence services of the ruling junta nonchalantly concoct versions of the truth to best suit their needs, using a combination of indoctrination, intimidation, bureaucracy, truth reimagination and goon squad tactics to maintain control. Stuffed into unearned uniforms adorned with cheap medals, the rulers' audacity and layering of lies is Orwellian in scope, as the machinery of the state extends to every street corner.

Into this dark nightmare steps the Magistrate, a man intent on serving justice despite government intentions, and empowered by an ethical code above any oppressive directive. With star names Yves Montand and Irene Papas enjoying smallish roles, it is Jean-Louis Trintignant who finally occupies the heart of Z. As the unflappable and bespectacled Magistrate he becomes the irresistible force pushing against the immovable wall, under no illusions as to the limits of his power but willing to let evidence speak for itself.

Costa-Gavras uses flashbacks, multiple perspectives of the same key incidents, quick edits, sly humour and short scenes to bring plenty of dynamism into the movie. The staging of some of the action scenes lands on the slightly clunky side, but otherwise Z is crafted to chase events into a rage. Eternally relevant as an exposition of powermongers controlling the state apparatus, Z lives on as a faint flicker of hope.

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