Homeland Insecurity: Costa-Gavras’ Radicalizing Political Thriller, Z, 40 Years Later


Forty years of suave political thrillers have made an awkward, lumbering creature out of Costa-Gavras’ adaptation of Vassili Vassilikos’ novel about the 1963 murder of Greek human-rights activist Gregorious Lambrakis. Even in 1970, when the movie won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and Best Actor at Cannes for Jean-Louis Trintignant, no one in his right mind ever called Z subtle. But at the time, if you were a radicalized student and hearing the visceral pound of Mikis Theodorakis’ soundtrack (with the plaintive alto of singer Maria Farandouri) all over radios in Western Europe, the movie was the biggest thrill ride in town, not to mention a blood-quickening call to political action. Today, it comes as a shock that the leftists whose heads were wanted by incipiently fascist colonels gearing up for a coup were nothing more threatening than pro-democracy, nuclear-arms protesters. Watching the new 35-mm print of Z issued by Rialto Pictures for the movie’s 40th anniversary reminds us what a cinematic terrorist Costa-Gavras could be: Would any filmmaker today feel the need to overdraw the right-wing nationalist thug who carries out the army’s dirty work as a strutting, monkey-faced goon whose evil is insidiously bound up with his homosexuality? What the director lacked in restraint, though, he more than made up for in the cocky verve and passion with which he separated good from evil. Yves Montand — all hooded bedroom eyes and fitted suits, with his muscles rippling through his white shirts — turns in an irresistibly conceited performance as the human-rights lawyer; Irene Papas’ eyes glow like coals as his strong, silent wife; Trintignant is all tense righteousness as the judge who sequentially traps the rightists into self-incrimination. Costa-Gavras made mostly duds thereafter, but if nothing else, Z reminds you what a terrific choreographer of street violence he could be, and makes you nostalgic for a time when the press and the law stood for guts and integrity — even if the junta that hollowed their victory made them all vanish overnight. (Nuart)

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