Sunday, December 23, 2012

Z (1969)

There were political thrillers before -- I described the 1935 trifle Secret Bride as one, while a more notable American example would be 1963's Seven Days in May, but Costa-Gavras's international hit gives us the political thriller in recognizably modern form. Based on Greek politics and a Greek novel based on actual events, the Greek director filmed his adaptation with a mostly French cast on Algerian locations, setting the action in some unspecified country with a monarch and parliament. By doing that he guaranteed his movie a certain timelessness that makes it as immediate an experience as ever, well after its original political relevance has faded from memory.

Z is a two-part movie, its first act building up to a speech by a apparently pacifist, presumably leftist politician (real-life lefty Yves Montand), as organizers scramble to relocate the event amid fears of violence from right-wing goons. The buildup is intercut with the misadventures of two lumpen losers, Yago (Renato Salvatori) and Vago (Marcel Bozzuffi) apparently intent on mischief in Yago's kamikaze, his Japanese three-wheeled mini-truck. The storylines converge after Montand's speech, and after he stares down a goon who seems set on slugging him. As Montand crosses the street to confront the authorities, Yago barrels through and Vago smacks Montand over the head with a truncheon. Before you can fully register what's happened, Costa-Gavras segues instantly into a breathless action sequence as one of Montand's allies leaps into the bed of the kamikaze to fight Vago. As Mikis Theodorakis's perfectly thrilleristic percussion sets the rhythm the kamikaze careens through the streets while Vago tries to smash his new enemy's skull against the sides of parked cars. The man manages to toss Vago into the street and tries to smash his way into the cab before quick braking throws him off. A crowd appears before Yago can finish him.

Yves Montand is the martyr.
Marcel Bozzuffi is the assassin.
Renato Salvatori is the driver.

We finally get our breather during the deathwatch as surgeons struggle against heavy odds to save Montand's life. Once he dies and Irene Papas gets her big scenes as the new widow, and after we see the title invoked by a pro-Montand crowd painting the letter Z in a parking lot, Jean-Louis Trintignant (returning soon and touted for an Oscar in Michael Haneke's Amour) takes over the story as the magistrate assigned to investigate Montand's death. At this point the film becomes a classic procedural as Trintignant picks up the trail of Yago and Vago, linking them to a right-wing goon squad (they don't really rise to the level of a paramilitary organization) called CROC (the acronym translates as Christian Royalists Against Communism). He has a brilliant scene with Bozzuffi, himself brilliant as a comical yet menacing thug, as the magistrate red-baits Vago into declaring his and Yago's membership in CROC as Vago's lawyer looks on in disgust. Along the way, the magistrate has to deal with officials who want either to cover up the truth or simply have the case go away, pressing Trintignant to determine that Yago was a drunk driver who simply blundered into Montand's path and hit him with the kamikaze -- Costa-Gavras films alternate-reality scenes illustrating this theory -- despite the forensic evidence of a shattering blow to the top of the victim's skull. At the same time, conspirators scramble to eliminate witnesses, failing most dramatically during one tensely car-vs.-foot chase.

Jean-Louis Trintignant is the magistrate
Marcel Bozzuffi is the useful idiot.
Pieds ne me manquent maintenant!

Finally, Trintignant manages to implicate numerous generals in a conspiracy using CROC to eliminate a political enemy -- but this apparent victory for justice only delays the inevitable, as an epilogue explains that the military would shortly take over this supposedly fictional country and crush civil liberties, banning (among many, many other things -- including the music of Mikis Theodorakis) the letter Z, which in Greek serves as shorthand for "he lives."

Modern political thrillers come in two modes: paranoid and procedural. While the conspiratorial element in Z suggests that it might be a bit of both, the decentered all-star nature of the production and the investigatory emphasis of the second half put it firmly in the procedural camp.  In a year when Alfred Hitchcock bungled the genre with his own adaptation of a novel, Topaz, Costa-Gavras managed a more successfully Hitchcockian picture, succeeding equally in building and sustaining suspense and in filming exciting action. But in its lack of a single protagonist who carries through the whole picture Z seems less Hitchcockian than a precursor of modern political thrillers like Syriana where no one character dominates the entire story. That gives it more of a quasi-documentary flavor compared to the more paranoid films that focus on the ordeal of one person. Z's procedural format probably makes it more palatable for those who might object to the filmmakers' politics if they knew about them, since Trintignant is less concerned with political struggle than with solving a crime. In its own time, Z may have been a rallying point for fashionably leftist moviegoers, but by now its politics are practically irrelevant and it can be appreciated simply as a great, groundbreaking genre film.

1 comment:

Sam Juliano said...

Yep Samuel, I'd agree that the film is more squarely enconsed in a procedural categorization that paranoic, but there are some elements of the latter well-represented. Excellent review of a great political film, one that has held up beautifully. I do hope by the way that Trintignant gets an Oscar nod, but Riva seems to have a better shot. Interesting too that Costa-Gacres outHitchcocked Hitch in a year when the suspense master was weaving his own inferior political thriller.