when costa-gavras' z opened 40 years ago it was a sensation. there wasn't another movie with such pop and political excitement until do the right thing in 1989-and nothing comparable since. back in 1969, a foreign-language film became a hit in america because people felt it-as they had with la dolce vita, never on sunday, 8 1/2, yesterday today and tomorrow and a man and a woman. this phenomenon is detailed in james a. selvidge's colorfully illustrated new book, bergman, fellini, kurosawa: the foreign film in america. a foreign-language hit didn't happen by critics grinding a political axe (the death of mr. lazarescu) or a pinko-commie fetish (4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days) or hipster intimidation (y tu mamá también, flight of the red balloon).the latter films were not popular successes; merely a mini-trend: they were art frauds. but z, the first non-english film to be nominated for a best picture oscar since renoir's 1938 grand illusion, packed a punch-and its return engagement this week at film forum still does. based on the assassination of greek politician gregoris lambrakis, costa-gavras fashioned a movie that addressed political conspiracy and genre mechanics. the lambrakis killing is restaged as a sentimental liberal expose with yves montand elegantly embodying the martyred lambrakis figure. at a rally in an unnamed city, bureaucrats attempt to stall the gathering and local thugs hired to cause trouble among lambrakis followers set the scene for disaster. in these roles, other european actors (jean-louis trintignant as the investigating judge plus georges géret, renato salvatori, charles denner, bernard fresson, jean bouise and irene papas as the politician's wife) are recognizable from other movies yet their precise characterizations-officious, angry, scared, impassioned-are also recognizable from life. the double effect was common during the euro art film's golden era.
costa-gavras had shown impeccable thriller technique in his 1966 debut the sleeping car murders without revealing the unique political commitment that would define the rest of his career. but here his tense, fast-paced style is used with explicit political purpose. z was praised for dramatizing the hidden schemes behind historic events as well as for its tension and excitement. between droll political euphemisms and colorful epigrams expressed by both sides of the lamrakis affair, costa-gavras makes an urgent, big-screen myth. ("always blame the usa, even if you're wrong," says a lefty-proof anti-americanism didn't originate with the iraq war.) the use of ideological good guys and bad guys is simple and effective without particular detail. this vagueness suited the era of radical chic and is better than anything from the george clooney crowd. z's screenwriter jorge semprún was a former communist whose political and literary awakening informed both alain resnais' la guerre est finie and costa-gavras' follow-up, the more intricate and dazzlingly the confession, about the stalinist purge trials.
the title z comes from an emblem used by demonstrators to protest lambrakis' killing; they painted the letter "z" (the greek symbol for "life") on walls and streets as graffiti immortalizing lambrakis' ideals. that agit-prop impulse is repeated in costa-gavras' use of genre techniques. the headlong car chases, point-blank fight scenes, a frighteningly up-close street melee (where a peace sign is ripped, uncovering a clint eastwood movie poster) lend a propulsive immediacy to the dramatization of political fear. lambrakis' killing happened the same year as jfk's, and z appeared in the aftermath of the malcolm x, mlk and rfk assassinations. it exercised the era's sense of paranoia and its need for clarity. you don't need to know the details of greece's political upheaval to be swept up by trintingnant's investigation. he's like a principled clerk but with the force of righteousness on his side, bringing conspirators to justice with the stern, memorable command "name. first name. profession." it's the art-house equivalent to dirty harry's "make my day."
years later, costa-gavras' shrewd contrivance and superb form hold up impressively. cinematographer raoul coutard shoots the nighttime assassination in a public square using documentary spontaneity yet with the graphic clarity of a timeless, inevitable nightmare-only fritz lang or de palma could have done it better. costa-gavras' staging makes the split-second tragedy unforgettable then plunges into a sociological mystery about various character types-from a publicity-seeking farmer, a crusading photojournalist and predatory thugs like marcel bozzufi's gay assassin. (bozzufi's flashy degeneracy reminds us 1969 needed stonewall.)
z deals in the same zeitgeist quandary as godard's 1966 paranoid political comedy made in u.s.a. and gillo pontecorvo's the battle of algiers. each film agonizes over politics with an ethical intensity that is missing from such contemporary thrillers as syriana, michael clayton, the international-all by filmmakers who don't know the pain of witnessing genuine political horror. z's ending (a tally of fascist clampdowns on freedom of expression and the arts) was once uncannily frightening and now seems like overkill. we have learned to live with political corruption and take assassinations in stride-it's even become the stuff of comic-book titillation as in the grassy knoll segment of watchmen. yet costa-gavras' desire to shock moviegoers' political awareness still works. -- z directed by costa-gavras at film forum march 13-26 runtime: 127 min.