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"Any similarity to actual person or events is deliberate."
DVD ReviewOnce upon a time, political moviemaking wasn't a box office kiss of death, and every last filmmaker hadn't ceded the field to Oliver Stone. It's unfortunate that we've come to this, but Z is not only a fine film, though very much of its time; it's a reminder that a movie can brim with political passion without insisting that Lyndon Johnson and a cast of thousands were on the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza.
The movie is deliberately opaque about its location and characters, but the original audience and the filmmakers were all well aware that this is a thinly fictionalized version of the assassination in 1963 of Gregorios Lambrakis, a leader in the Greek anti-nuclear movement, killed by the military forces that would shortly thereafter overthrow the government. Yves Montand plays this charismatic figure, here identified only as the Deputy, arriving in town to deliver a speech at a rally and to face down the forces arrayed against the forces calling for nuclear disarmament.
The authorities, in vehement disagreement with the peace movement, blithely ignore the threats on the deputy's life that are reported to them; they also provide the rally with a pittance of police protection, more or less inviting the eruption of violence. And indeed, bad things come to pass, as the deputy is savaged by a gang of thugs, and dies from a brain hemorrhage.
The local prosecutor (Jean-Louis Trintignant) spearheads the investigation, and he seems to be the last honest man—the shoddy events are too full of coincidences, and his examination of the facts leads him further up the chain of command. A fish rots from the head, and all of the prosecutor's worst suspicions about the government in which he serves are confirmed.
One of the many accomplishments of Z is the way in which it pulses with the politics of its time—it's very much a film of the Cold War, and one with a Mediterranean sensibility, with the Europeans knowing full well that in a potential confrontation between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., they were liable to be caught in the crossfire. But this is such a terrific movie because it's more than merely polemical—the specificity with which these characters are portrayed and the world they inhabit is all so deeply human. It's easy to recognize, in this film about another time and place, much of both the best and worst about human nature.
The director and his cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, infuse the scenes with tremendous energy, as the camera probes and insinuates itself into rooms, and the ceilings are invariably low, lending the military establishment especially a palpable sense of menace. Although almost all of the shoot was on location, the production team took great care in the composition of the images; it's a style of shooting that had a tremendous influence, and many of the great American films of the early 1970s, including The Conversation and All the President's Men, owe an obvious debt to Coutard.
Costa-Gavras also assembled a marvelous group of actors; there's the fear, given that many of the characters are little more than their functions, that the acting style could get melodramatic, but it never does. Montand has only twelve minutes of screen time, but his sense of the rightness of his cause and his fear that he'll be called on to pay the ultimate sacrifice set the tone for the whole movie. (The parallel between him and JFK is played up—his speeches borrow from President Kennedy's, and the images of him after the attack on his life are deliberately reminiscent of November 22, 1963.) Irene Papas is especially good as his wife, in what's nearly a silent part, and Marcel Bozzuffi is particularly memorable as one of the thugs temporarily in the government's employ.
There's a sense in some of Costa-Gavras's American films, like Music Box or Betrayed, that there's something about this country that he doesn't quite get, but here, on turf closer to home, he does a stunning job with the material. There's an obvious comic-opera aspect to the idiots in power, responsible for the plot that gets unfurled, and they would be greater figures of comedy if they didn't have guns. The conclusion of the film is both heartening and sobering; it's hard to be a good man in a bad world, the director seems to be telling us, but the glory of living is in the effort.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: The film has received a good going-over for DVD, and generally looks splendid, the colors especially. Reds fare very well, browns and yellows less so, and the black level is solid. Only an occasional scratch shows up; alas, restoration can heal most but not all wounds.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The mono track is perfectly fine, and though much of the movie is men exchanging information, the 5.1 track is preferable, especially for the more active scenes—political rallies, car chases and such. The rear speakers are put to good effect especially in these busier sequences, layering in more ambient sound and using the soundtrack to heighten the drama. Only slight drawback: the 5.1 track makes Mikis Theodorakis's music sound even more tinny.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 40 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, German with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Costa-Gavras
What's billed as an Interview (18m:41s) is really a discussion between the director and Vassili Vassilikos, on whose novel the film was based. Vassilikos spent better than three years researching the historical materials, and then wrote the novel with tremendous speed; Costa-Gavras read and loved the book, but had trouble tracking down the author, as a Greek putsch intervened. Intercut with their discussion is footage from the time of the film's original release, including a few moments on set with Yves Montand.
A Restoration Demonstration (06m:27s) illustrates just why the film looks so good here, and the hard work that went into cleaning up the print. Filmographies are provided for Montand, Papas, Trintignant and Costa-Gavras; weblinks are provided to a site for Wellspring, the distributor; another for Mad City, a more recent film by the same director; a tribute to Raoul Coutard; and to the original review of the movie by Pauline Kael.
Extras Grade: A-
Final CommentsMoral decency and outrage in concert with cinematic skill is a high-powered combination, and Costa-Gavras uses the latter to express the former in this potent film, that still speaks to us and looks terrific in this new transfer. An informative package of extras seals the deal. Highly recommended.
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