Z (1969)

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*. Now this is editing. Françoise Bonnot received an Academy Award for her work on it, and it was well deserved.
*. Bonnot, who worked closely with director Costa-Gavras, believed in the natural, fluid, psychological rhythm of montage. You can’t call it a stream of consciousness style, but it combines narrative with our apprehension of reality, and moves at a pace not of thought but understanding. Shots lead us from proposition to proposition as much as from place to place and time to time.
*. The camera is often moving, but there is also a movement to the cuts, a flow that carries us along in sometimes unexpected directions. As an example, there’s one jump in time that is almost perfectly invisible: when we cut immediately from a side shot of Nick sitting up in bed to a head-on shot of him in the same position (with the same bag on his head), but now the chief of the military police has left and he’s being interrogated by the magistrate. It’s an incredible bit of visual sleight of hand (we’re sure the chief of police will still be there when the camera pans back), and it helps create that sense, so important to this movie, of the non-linearity of narrative time. We move freely among different temporal locations and points of view.
*. The editing derives from the New Wave, but is less flashy and self-regarding. The same can be said for the photography by Raoul Coutard, one of the foremost cinematographers of the nouvelle vague. How did Coutard manage to get so many shots look both so formally composed and so from-the-hip? It’s as though he was finding poetry on the street (or in an office building) every time he turned his camera on. It moves so fast it’s easy not to notice (like the editing), but this is a beautiful film.

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*. The story is based on the novel by Vassilis Vassilikos that was in turn based, quite faithfully, on the political murder of the Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. Note the year.
*. Yes, the Lambrakis assassination was Europe’s JFK moment. What made it different was that the Greek conspiracy was real.
*. The paradox is that it feels less real. Instead of being set in Greece the film was shot in Algeria with a French cast, with the name of the location, as well as the names of most of the characters, deliberately withheld. Where are we? Unmoored in space as well as time.
*. One possible answer to the question of where we are is Ruritania on the Mediterranean. Dig those uniforms and medals.

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*. It’s a conspiracy movie about very serious real events, and yet it is played almost as comic opera. The thugs are named Vago and Yago. Georges Géret as Nick the coffin maker has a clownish water bag on his head throughout his hospital scene. We see Vago running away from the journalist with his leg in a fake cast, then jumping into bed only for the camera to reveal a doctor and nurses in the room staring at him. At the end, as the beribboned gang of stuffed military shirts are rounded up and make their clumsy exits, the music gets jaunty as they play out a running gag of trying to exit the supposedly “press-free” door, which is locked. We are almost in the realm of slapstick.
*. The business with the door gag is followed by a coda that again reminds us of JFK mythology. Recall the ending of Executive Action with its voiceover of spurious statistics documenting the suspicious demise of “eighteen material witnesses” (including one by “karate chop”).

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*. To what extent is a “political” movie always a “conspiracy” movie? Apparently one of the films that influenced Costa-Gavras was Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May. And continuing the line of descent, the fingerprints of this movie are all over Stone’s JFK. Of course, after Watergate and All the President’s Men, we assumed that the political realm was all a vast conspiracy.
*. Unlike more recent conspiracy films, however, Z is less nihilistic. Yes, the ending is downbeat as the forces of authority re-take control and re-write history. But we have seen the truth, and it doesn’t remain floating “out there” in some X-Files ether. In the 1960s and ’70s there was still a sense that people could speak truth to power and hold it to account. We are far more cynical about such things today, when we love Big Brother (the Internet) but don’t have the first idea who he is.

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*. I’m not sure what the lesson is. A very serious political story (Lambrakis) is played, partially, for laughs while a paranoid fantasy (Kennedy) is treated like a tense legal docudrama in films like Executive Action and JFK. Of course movies can make anything seem real. But they’re not so good at making the real seem real. David Thomson: “It is very difficult for the movies to do such cases as this and not leave the viewer uncertain about their veracity. . . . One plain conclusion is that movie is not always a very helpful medium journalistically.”
*. Perhaps because I’m reading subtitles (which I often do, even for English films, because my hearing isn’t what it used to be), I was struck by how much talking there is. I wonder if there’s ever been an action film with this much chatter.
*. Part of the reason is that so much of the movie is a verbal reconstruction of reality. People tell us what they saw as much as we see what they saw. We learn to listen carefully, trying to pick up nuance. Did the magistrate just say this was “murder” and not an “incident”? Words mean something.

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*. I don’t think the chatter ever stops, unless Irene Papas is on screen, as outside of her one big scene she is a helmet-haired sphinx. She was the only Greek actor in the cast and Costa-Gavras wanted her to be “a symbol of Greek suffering.” Aside from the parts with her in them, there are very few other scenes, even among the action/suspense sequences, that play without dialogue (the fight on the back of the three-wheeler “kamikaze” stands out as an exception). It’s a strong film visually, but the script does a lot of work.
*. The politics of the 1960s haven’t worn that well. We’re not as worried by long-haired atheists, junkies, and rock ‘n’ roll (presumably what is meant by the latter is the pop music that makes the proscription scroll at the end). But is it just that the enemies of the dominant culture have been defined in different ways?
*. This is a very effective movie. A machine, really. It also set the standard for political (conspiracy) thrillers for years to come. And yet despite its depressing coda it seems a product of a more optimistic time.

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