Tuesday, May 23, 2017

1969 Winner, Z


Director:  Costa-Gavras

Distributed by:  Cinema V

Released:  February 1969

Country:  Algeria/France

I’m not one much for cinema with an overt political message—never cared much for All the President’s Men, nor for Dr. Strangelove, nor for anything by Oliver Stone.  Heck, I don’t even really count Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as worth seeing more than once.  So when I learned that Z, 1969’s Best Foreign Film, was considered some sort of all-time great political thriller, I have to admit, I went in begrudgingly.  I don’t like to be hit over the head with a preachy message.

But movies can “transcend the genre,” as they say, and I think Z is one of those films.  Based on a real assassination, that of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963, Z has good guys and bad guys.  The good guys are the leftists who protest war and call for overturning the current system.  The bad guys are the militaristic right-wing government, plain and simple.  The movie starts with the good guys just wanting to have a little get-together in a government-approved setting.  Their political leader is The Deputy, played by Yves Montand, probably best known to American audiences from the 1966 film Grand Prix, with James Garner and Toshiro Mifune.  The bad guys find ways to obstruct and interfere with the good guys’ right to assemble.  The good guys are determined to let The Deputy give his speech, and eventually a time and place (smaller than they’d like) is set.

The Director, while still alive
The Deputy is on the way to make his speech when . . . BAM!  He is knocked on the head with something stronger than just a political message.  The culprit is some ruffian, presumably hired by the bad guys.  But The Deputy is no wallflower—despite one helluva headache, he goes on to make his speech, condemning nukes over the loudspeakers for all to hear outside the small venue.  After the speech, feeling pretty keen about himself, but still needing a couple of aspirin desperately, The Deputy walks out and through the crowd.  Out of nowhere, a car pulls out toward him and BAM!  Like a Bugs Bunny cartoon, he is given a second lump.

This time The Deputy goes down like Apollo Creed after an Ivan Drago haymaker; and this time, he isn’t getting up.  The government (i.e., the bad guys) “believes” this was a classic open-and-shut case of manslaughter by drunk-driving, naturally.  The rest of the film follows the investigation into this incident, with the forces of truth being opposed at every turn by those in power doing all they can to cover up what really happened and who really did it.
"How many lumps?"  "Three or four!"

One such honest investigator is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, who stars in two other Best Foreign Films, 2012’s Amour, and 1966’s A Man and a Woman (to be reviewed here in a few weeks), both French films (also of note, the role of the Photojournalist in this film is played by Jacques Perrin, who played as the adult Tito in 1989 BFF Winner, Cinema Paradiso.  Perrin was also the producer of the film).  This investigator is honest and stubbornly pursuant of the truth.  The real question the movie poses is:  Is being an honest man stubbornly pursuant of the truth enough against the full forces of government who have every interest in covering that truth?

Z has great performances and the pacing and photography are perfect for the story.  There is a documentary feel to this film, but it is not without episodes of dark humor.  Especially amusing are the thugs whom the government has working for it, not really bright enough to know why they are doing what they are doing.  The film was billed as a thriller, but it really isn’t one if you
Jean-Louis Trintignant as The Deputy
are paying attention.  The filmmakers have a political viewpoint that is out there for you to see, so if you are surprised by how events unfold, you may be dumber than the thugs that perpetrate the crimes.

The title:  The letter is a symbol that somehow means, “He lives!” according to the film’s closing sequence.  Maybe The Director isn’t really dead, but was only sleeping?  But in that case, they should have called it, “Zzzzz.”

The Culture:  This is an Algerian-French production, but the country of setting is never really identified, despite the story being a fictionalized account of a real event in Greece.  The culture portrayed is a post-war time of political activism and upheaval.

Agenda danger:  Left good; right bad.  The establishment is corrupt and the opposition are pure as the driven snow.  About as subtle as a hammer to the head.  On a side note, Oliver Stone structured his artistically-interesting but truth-averse JFK on this movie, directed by Greek-born Costa-Gavras.

I'm walkin' here!
Best Picture that year:  Midnight Cowboy.  I’m walkin’ here!

Rating:  Your political point of view is sure to color what you think of this movie.  I found it a bit ham-handed message-wise, but the film itself is very watchable.  Stone’s JFK and Spike Lee’s Malcom X are examples of similarly well-made movies, worth checking out for the film-making and performances (particular Denzel Washington’s in the latter), but then to be put aside never to be seen again.  But that’s just this man’s opinion.

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