Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Master Class: Costa-Gavras’s “Z”

The most recent issue of Time Magazine carries the title “The Decline and Fall of Europe”. In light of the austerity protests in Greece and Rome, the rioting in London, and numerous issues surrounding the continent in the Arab Spring, it’s a wonder that more political art hasn’t been created at this time. It’s an opportune moment in history to review one of the greatest political films ever made, Costa-Gavras’s 1969 masterpiece Z.

Z is a film loosely based on the assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963, the film was an incendiary comment on Greek military rule in that era. The film’s title refers to the Greek term “Ζει”, meaning “he lives”. Superimposed over the screen is this confrontational inscription:

“Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is INTENTIONAL.”

And that is how you get an audience's full attention within the first two minutes and never let go.

The film is in French and the country in which this all happens is unnamed, but make no mistake about it that this is a thinly veiled account of the Greek military junta in the 1960s. It is no coincidence that Costa-Gavras cast Greece’s leading actress of the age, Irene Papas, in a strongly featured role here. The fact that this is an Algerian-French co-production makes this a companion piece to the equally outstanding 1966 political thriller The Battle of Algiers.

The assassination
The film opens with a chilling government briefing session. The commander warns against an “ideological mold” and that it is imperative for them to “spray”, in order to prevent further subversive activities and / or popular uprisings. The euphemism “spray” as a means of eradication is veiled dialogue instructing the army to “cleanse” the many new diseases in society, reduced to the all-inclusive term “isms”, likening opposing parties to unwanted contagion. And yet, they demonstrations or other expositions of opposing ideals must not be suppressed, for “this is a democracy”. Why is this always what despots and extremist politicians always seem to say the moment they are about to commit something really, really insidious? And so Costa-Gavras sets the tone for his political film classic. Perhaps the most adept descriptor for Z is its original, unused title: The Anatomy of a Political Assassination.

Irene Papas as the politician's wife
This is not a film with distinct personalities. It is no accident that characters wear variations of the same outfits and there is nothing to denote an individual based on ideology, class, or any other distinguishing factors. Everything is just a little faceless, just a little impersonal, and more than a little unnerving because of it. In this cinematic world Costa-Gavras created, extermination is imminent. There are characters here but they do not go beyond their functions: government officials, charismatic opposition leader, his wife, an interrogator, prosecutors, witnesses. This is a film that paints a broad canvas supporting a broader vision. The director is not interested in any of their personalities, which seems to be the failing of so many American-made political thrillers. We do not and should not care about their inner lives, their childhoods, or anything else. Z is presented documentary-style, as if a camera crew were allowed free access to view political machinations at work in destroying all forms of opposition while spouting the term “democracy” as if it were a salve to soothe the burn.
It’s a credit to Costa-Gavras’s vision that he never stoops to speechifying or expounding grandiose ideals in his films. He simply presents the films as versions of events as they are. The personal stories aren’t the point, which was what made Proof of Life and Beyond Borders cinematic and political lame ducks, because a love triangle or conventional Hollywood narrative cannot co-exist against a greater global context. Ideals are not the same as ideas. Z must be savoured and experienced the way the filmmakers present it, with a restless camera that follows the ongoing story to its natural end, and bravely shows that sometimes even the justice system fails. Make no mistake that Z is not fantasia. It is in fact perhaps the most straightforward document of a faceless dictatorship cementing its foothold, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it, even if you live in a “democracy”. (Is this sounding familiar to anyone?)

This was not the last time Costa-Gavras dealt with overtly political cinema. His 1982 thriller Missing was set in an unnamed South American country and also dealt with revolution, but it had a far more personal touch as central to the story was the disappearance of a western journalist and how it brings his wife and estranged father closer together. There’s also his 1989 film Music Box, about the aftermath of war, through the eyes of a woman facing her father’s trial for war crimes in Nazi Germany. He’s not exactly the sort to direct the next big-budget action thriller with Daniel Craig, but that doesn’t mean he can’t direct a really mean Bond installment if he were up for it.

This is not to say that Z is something you only view in history class for credit. It is ingeniously paced, never loses narrative momentum by switching between multiple characters at just the right time, and following the story as it unfolds in real time. Its film editing was so accomplished that it won an Oscar, beating even that recklessly-paced buddy comedy Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid that very year. Z was only the second foreign-language film to ever receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and was named Best Foreign Film of 1969. As the world continues to slouch toward and recoil away from the knife’s edge of disaster, this film grows more and more in power.

Z boasts an international cast including Papas, Yves Montand, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jacques Perrin and Magali Noel. It is available in a masterpiece Criterion Collection box set and makes occasional appearances on Turner Classic Movies.