(Costa - Gavras, France/Algeria, 1969) 127 minutes


Director: Costa-Gavras
Producer: Jacques Perrin
Screenplay: Jorge Semprun, Costa-Gavras,
  from the novel by Vassili Vassilikos
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Editor: Françoise Bonnot
Music: Mikis Theodorakis
Yves Montand (Z)
Irene Papas (Hélène)
Jean-Louis Trintignant (Magistrate)
François Périer (Prosecutor)
Jacques Perrin (Journalist)
Charles Denner (Manuel)
Pierre Dux (General)

Reviews and notes

1969 Cannes, Moscow
1970 Osaka
1997 Thessaloniki
2005 Copenhagen
2009 Pusan
2015 Cannes (digitally restored version)
2016 Torino

Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1969, this swiftly-moving and effective political thriller, shot in Algeria by the Greek-born Costa-Gavras, plainly points its finger at the Colonels’ regime in Greece. Despite its topicality and its somewhat simplified treatment of complicated issues, the film’s message and passion still communicate to an audience – for although the specifics have altered, the generality of totalitarian regimes has not. Based on a novel by Vassili Vassilikos, the film is set in an unidentified Mediterranean country where support is growing for ’Z’, the leader of the pacifist opposition party. After he is killed by a passing van, the investigating magistrate is led to suspect murder when he uncovers a secret organization supported by the government and the police. The film’s tremendous popularity and critical recognition rocketed Costa-Gavras into world prominence and enabled him to continue making the kind of political thrillers that mark his specialty.
- Harvard Film Archive.

Those of us who took the measure of Costa-Gavras from Compartiment tueurs, and marked him as a suspense director of consequence, will be delighted to find affirmation of his talent in Z, which is the political thriller par excellence. The genre is underestimated by many, as a species of cinema typified by such early Hitchcock works as the British version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which is a howl from start to finish and of no political significance whatever. Costa-Gavras brings us to bracing terms with cinema and reality by taking as subject matter a disgusting phase of recent history. The action happens in a Mediterranean country, 'which does not appear on the map". This is no safeguard, because we know it to be Greece. The idea is to warn us that it could all too easily be anywhere.

Adapted from the novel by Vassili Vassilikos, the story tells of a pacifist leader whose assassination is officially dismissed as an accident, until the investigations of an examining magistrate disclose a web of political intrigue, in which fascist thugs are employed by representatives of the police and a junta takeover is inevitable because the forces of justice are too weak or too far gone in corruption to resist. The sickening truth of it is not rammed down our throats with emotional fervour, but whipped up as black satire. Thereby the mind is exercised, even amused in a truly sophisticated fashion, and ultimately commanded to face the appalling and ludicrous facts that we shrugged away when they were delivered to us as 'news.' The news-vendor's strident monotony can breed apathy as a kind of self-protection, and this aspect of the case is put in correct perspective by the cynical performance of Jacques Perrin, as a gadfly reporter-photographer who will cover a riot in the streets because it makes better copy than the decorum of a first night at the ballet.

In driving home the basic elements, with real-seeming violence and travelling shots of the police advancing with batons at the ready, Costa-Gavras makes continual play upon contrasts. Therefore we have glancing jibes at the visitors from the Bolshoi, which might have been accentuated more pertinently if they had been seen taking a curtain call for Spartacus rather than Chopiniana. The inadequate division between art and politics is deplored, just as the best of men are provided with human flaws of character and the worst are observed with satiric derision.

Continually the film keeps us agog, as it leaps from one incident or character to another, nagging swiftly at the guile involved. Eschewing the sentimental approach, it gives no quarter. Indicting not only the militarists and the power-seekers, but also the giddy urge to participate in anything that lifts existence into the frenzy of sensationalism. Costa-Gavras articulates his movie in a style far above the gabblings of news-commentators. And, at the bitter end, when tyranny has achieved its stupid purpose, he inclines us to laugh in contempt rather than depart in a gloom that sees no promise. The final upbeat thrust, in which Z is equated with the ancient Greek meaning of "He lives," is about the only concession that is made to accepted emotional manoeuvres. Otherwise the film is mature and objective, and at the same time as exciting as you could wish a thriller to be.

The colour photography by Raoul Coutard is admirable; and, in addition to Perrin, there are many fine and subtle performances, notably from Irene Papas, Marcel Buzzufi, Georges Géret and Pierre Dux. Especially distinguished is the interior playing of Jean-Louis Trintignant as the magistrate, keeping him cool, adapting his demeanour to suit each individual he questions, and doggedly following a path that leads not only to the truth but to his own extinction. The performance merges with the message of the film, which carries more strength than a wilderness of headlines. - Gordon Gow, Films and Filming, December 1969.

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