The Criterion Corner



Director: Costa-Gavras

Year of release: 1969

Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes


Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is Greek-born filmmaker Costa-Gavras' 1969 searing political thriller, Z.

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

Thus begins Costa-Gavras’ 1969 thriller/procedural/political diatribe, Z; a film famous for not only influencing an entire generation of politically-minded filmmakers, but also actively engaging in a revolutionary debate as it was occurring. More than simply the story of a left-wing politician (Yves Montand) killed by a passing motorist, Z is the work of a filmmaker in peak control of his powers; the camera swooping, the editing jaggedly propulsive, the synth/folk score by Mikis Theodorakis giving everything a sense of playful danger. There's also intentional humor here too--this isn't some self-serious slog even though the subject matter is very serious--especially from side characters like a blue-collar witness (George Géret), who wants to testify against the corrupt powers even after being beaten to a pulp and landing himself in the hospital. 

In terms of plot, Z is essentially a fictionalized account of the 1963 killing of Greek opposition leader Gregoris Lambrakis in front of witnesses and police, but it never feels like a dull history lesson. Montand's sensitive, deeply layered performance as the Lambrakis stand-in certainly helps give the film's second half an air of tragedy after he's clubbed to death in the streets following a political speech. As the Royal Court conspire to cover up the murder as a drunk-driving accident, Gavras ingeniously plays around with the timeline, introducing new characters and incidents; with two particular action set-pieces (one where a Montand ally jumps onto the killer's moving vehicle, and the other where an opposition lawyer is chased along sidewalks and into a park) emerging as highlights.

Though obviously an attack on the fascist-leaning right, Z never descends into parody or leftist propaganda. This is mostly due to Gavras’ adeptness at handling genre elements; if anything, the film moves like a breathless thriller, complete with traditional thug baddies (Marcel Bozzuffi and Renato Salvatori, both having a ball), giving everything a fast-paced energy. Additionally, the gorgeously grainy imagery by renown cinematographer Raoul Coutard, clever time-shifting narrative structure, and Montand's dignified performance makes for a powerful piece of political art. Timely, resonant, and an essential addition to The Criterion Collection