A vast majority of political thrillers are weighed down by didacticism and dreary, heavy-handed themes, which is why Costa-Gavras’ Z — a buoyant retelling of the bitter truths involved in a damaged democracy — is such a marvel. This 1969 Oscar winner (for Best Foreign Language Film and Editing) is nearly peerless in its prescience and style. Although the leanings are clearly one-sided, the filmmakers infuse the harsh realities of Z’s historical plot with human comedy. During its disorienting opening, unflinching in its cheeky cadence and metaphor-laden speeches, a disclaimer appears onscreen: “Any similarity to events or actual persons dead or alive is not accidental. It is deliberate.” Following an aesthetic that is most reminiscent of the clever, freewheeling style of the French New Wave (unsurprisingly, Z was shot by whimsical Godard/Truffaut collaborator Raoul Coutard), eschews pure cynicism in favor of exiting filmmaking.
Centering on the death of a leftist leader (French icon Yves Montand), who is based upon Greek liberal Gregoris Lambrakis, Costa-Gavras reveals the assassination with classical dramatic irony. The audience is aware of the murder, yet the murky politics beneath the incident become more and more insidious as details are teased out by Jean-Louis Trintignant’s reticent, yet sharp, judge. Z is initially driven by a disturbing, yet amusing, human incompetence, but as backgrounds and conspiracies are revealed, the once feckless authorities devolve into sinister beings. The complex, yet accessible, structure gives the subject and characters room to breathe and expand without overshadowing the implicit statement. Even when the plot becomes slightly schematic, Z’s tone becomes almost sardonic. Costa-Gavras’ observant, tonally dexterous direction blends perfectly with Coutard’s fey camerawork and François Bonnot’s kinetic editing.
The violence in the film, most often depicted in scrappy riot sequences, is goofy but also eerily realistic. Its chaos is wholly inspired. Without ever becoming incongruous or inappropriate, Z turns democratic disillusion into a riveting epic of the human condition. The phrase “lithe and fierce…like a tiger” leads to the — unfortunately only momentary — downfall of corrupt authority, yet, rather ironically, it is these exact qualities that make Z such a fresh, surprising cinematic experience nearly 40 years after its initial release.