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DVD Review: Z
(The Criterion Collection)

Studio: The Criterion Collection
Year: 1969
Cast: Yves Montand, Jean-Louis Trintignant
Director: Costa-Gavras
Release Date: October 27, 2009
Rating: Not Rated for
Run Time: 02h:07m:07s
Genre(s): foreign, thriller

"Any similarity to rael persons or events is not coincidental. It is intentional." - from the opening title cards


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Costa-Gavras' epic tale of political intrigue and violence gets the Criterion treatment.

Movie Grade: A

DVD Grade: A

Once 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 Doctor, 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 doctor'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. Costa-Gavras is also extraordinary in conveing the power of crowds, and the mania of a mob, and how little it takes for the former to morph into the latter. 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.

Criterion's release picks up where Wellspring's now out-of-print edition left off, and it's almost a case study in how DVD production has changed over the course of this decade—the film looks stunning and sharp, and Criterion does its typical first-rate job of offering accompanying extras that inform without overwhelming. It's hard to say enough good things about the new transfer, with its crisp colors and sharp edges—Coutard's photography hasn't been served better on DVD anywhere. Criterion stalwart Peter Cowie provides a thorough and informative commentary track, about the film's production history, its literary pedigree, and its contemporary politics—necessary points of comparison include The Battle of Algiers and Salvatore Giuliano. You get the sense that Cowie has come armed to the teeth for this one, and it pays off. (Costa-Gavras's commentary on the Wellspring disc had much to recommend it, though; it's too bad it couldn't have been ported over.)

New interviews with the director and cinematographer show them as aging but still feisty cinematic lions. Costa-Gavras reminisces about the filmmaking and the prescient politics of the piece; Coutard sounds very much the dedicated auteurist soldier, throwing focus and talking about his work serving his director's vision. Three contemporary French TV interviews show us what a late 1960s press junket looks like, essentially—these are archival interviews with the director, Montand, Papas, and Vassilis Vassilikos, on whose novel the film is based. There's also an original trailer on the disc, and the accompanying booklet features an essay by Armond White that does little more than skim some of the discs's highlights.

Posted by: Jon Danziger - October 22, 2009, 12:45 pm - DVD Review
Keywords: criterion, thriller, costa-gavras

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