One of the chief strengths of Z, Costa-Gavras' classic work of crime fiction, is that it presents complex political ideas with great objectivity and ease. The film is extremely lucid for a melodrama from 1969 -- it was acclaimed on its release with two Academy Awards and the Jury Prize for acting at Cannes -- and as a historical document today. Part of Costa-Gavras' effectiveness stems from his source material; the script is adapted from a novel, a thinly veiled account of the murder of a Greek deputy in 1963. Still, Z resounds with clarity as a narrative of the changing political times in which it emerged.
Costa-Gavras sets up his tale in sharp and sweeping terms. At the outset, Army officers listen to a general speaking about the treatment of diseased grapevines. This comedic address turns somewhat morbid when another officer likens the vines to a body politic that is tainted with leftist elements. With this type of brilliantly demonstrative storytelling, remarkable cinema-verité staging and a fabulous score, Costa-Gavras sweeps us through a left party meeting where a politician is speaking, and into a growling crowd of protesters where the deputy's assassination takes place.
Clearly intended to resemble the actual murder of doctor Gregorios Lambrakis, this scene is shockingly brutal by any standards. In real life, the peace movement-aligned Lambrakis was a target of right-wing thugs; their military junta in Greece had not yet come into power. Z builds paranoia into its conspiracy theory text by making the deputy's enemies part of an entrenched government. Costa-Gavras echoes the brutal clubbing repeatedly through the film while a magistrate looks into the incident, neatly reworked by the police as "a traffic accident."
While this approach parallels the infamous Zapruder film wielded by Oliver Stone for his flick JFK, Z refuses to pander to any singular interpretation beyond the plain facts. Costa-Gavras' documentary-style presentation of the military regime's actions is too understated to lend itself to any emotionally charged summation. In this case, it is apparent that less is more. Clearly, Costa-Gavras' quiet evocation of horror is his triumph.
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