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Published:March 17th, 2009 11:17 EST
Z is a political thriller that puts a conspiracy under a microscope!

Z is a political thriller that puts a conspiracy under a microscope!

By John G. Kays

Z  is a 1969 political thriller, directed by Constantin Costas-Gavras-a barely fictitious account of the 1963 assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, a Greek charismatic zealot for peace; a populist, but a political figure who was a little to the right of the Communist Party. It has an all-star cast, with Yves Montand as the political saint, Irene Papas as his devoted wife, Louis Trinignant as the relentless, probing Investigator, and even Charles Denner, as one of his unfortunate colleagues. Oh, and Jacques Perrin plays The Photographer who manages to capture much significant evidence with his camera. The movie Z is based on a 1966 novel, of the same name, by Vassilis Vassilikos-a fictional history of Lambrakis`s demise; the film accurately follows the book, though it streamlines it with scientific editing.

Z poster


I just  acquired (in 2005) an aging1969 Ballantine paperback, secured from Pandora`s Books LTD,  Neche, ND. Z was directed by Constantin Costas-Gavras, who has made other films about abusive regimes, that includes The Confession and Missing, amongst others. Yet this film packs such a powerful punch, that it leaves you with a comparable eerie sensation, as if, say, you might possibly have been the first viewer of a pristine print of Abraham Zapruder`s evidence jam-packed home movie. Yes, as if you were privy to vital evidence before anyone else! You have that type of stirring intimacy with the story, as you watch.


In a nutshell, the story starts with a meeting of The Generals, who liken Communism to a mildew that must be snuffed out, at all costs! Then it switches to a square in Salonika, Macedonia, where Z (Zi=he lives, or the spirit of resistance) is to deliver an anti-bomb speech to his affiliates. Yet, a throng of thugs sabotage the meeting hall, pulling down posters, and roughing up some of the Z initiates. Z, himself, is hit on the head, but still manages to deliver a charged, righteous speech, even though he has sustained a concussion.


. Tragically, as he exits the hall, he is assaulted by a thug who hits him over the head with a Billy club; he completes this act of violence when driving past Z in a panel truck, striking him forcefully, then swiftly escaping the heavily policed crowd. The assault is very cunningly covered up by the authorities, and portrayed as a mere accident. Z lays in a coma for several days, but dies of this head-wound trauma


The entire remaining part of the film shows The Investigator (Louis Trinignant) gradually exposing the conspiracy by the military generals to intentionally do away with Z. However, the entire affair is suppressed, witnesses are intimidated, or eliminated entirely. Yes, many accidents erase them from the picture! The final frames of the film allude to the 1967 Coup di `Etat of the military generals, a factual allusion, and provides a checklist of censured items. I will repeat the list at the end of my piece, for it is a very blatant milestone of censorship.


Z was the first foreign film to be nominated for Best Picture by the Oscars. It did not win for that, but Z did manage to win an Oscar for editing, and no wonder, as it continues to reconstruct the assassination from different points of view, thus illuminating the many nuances of the truth. The Investigator probes deeper into the conspiracy as he interviews eye-witnesses, generals, and/or significant bystanders. As they tell their versions of events, Constantin Costas-Garras recreates the defining moment of Z`s assault, but each version has slightly nuanced changes. By stacking the details, cutting the tape, and repeating the identical event, but from variegated eyes, the scenario is magnified to epic proportions, and a crime of political murder comes into focus!


Michelangelo Antonioni`s radical film, Blow Up, had used similar devices about a year earlier. No, this assault on Lambrakis was no accident! Moreover, as the evidence exposes the plot, witnesses disappear; eventually, through political strong-arming, the investigation is jettisoned altogether. The precision editing clips many of these convoluted events together, over a mere handful of frames. One will become more aware of this when they read the book; since I am reading Z after seeing the movie, I can better recall the reductive capsulizing utilized on the cutting room floor of Z. Brilliant!


The legacy of Z, similar to Vassilikos`s passionate novel, is preserving the saintliness of the political figure, Gregoris Lambrakis. He is elevated to the status of martyrdom, as he righteously stood up for peace, détente in the nuclear race, and even equality and opportunity for the diverse components of the common Greek populace. Obviously, the parallels with the Kennedys are transparent, both in the film and in the book. The connection of Lambrakis to Bobby Kennedy is, maybe, even more the perfect fit. Too, Greece would deteriorate to a military Junta in the later sixties. Thus, one may contrast that time with the emerging democratic ideals of the earlier 1960s.


Another event that calls the film to mind is the wholesale slaughter of 34 student demonstrators by a brutal army at the Athens Polytechnic, on November 17th, 1973; this then tends to underscore the humanitarian message of Gregoris Lambrakis. Kent State also comes to mind, but this Greek atrocity was much more severe! Many Greek rights were blatantly disregarded in the late 1960s and early 1970s.This may have fueled the cult-worship of Z. One fact remains in my mind " always, as I review these significant events. After WWII the U.S. had a persistent CIA presence in Greece, and in many other countries, for that matter, and they pulled the marionette strings of political favoritism, that is, they favored Right-Wing Puppet Regimes as the best of two evils over Communist hegemony in Greece.



Z truly is a protest film against the prevailing ideology of the U.S.; brazen and daring, it challenges the oppressive regime of Greece, that dominated its current events. On a more transcendent level, it questions the Western Giant! It is as a fictional documentary that secures a distinct legacy in film history, but this is due more to its religious adherence to the novel Z. I.e., the novelist, Vassilis Vassilikos is the true originator of this genre, or this version of it, the accurate writing of history, which is only thinly veiled in fiction. Clearly, as we view it today, it also induces parallels with today`s Global War On Terrorism-which is the current sub-in for the Struggle Against Communism by the West. But now it is sacred Christian versus pagan Muslim, not unlike the Great Crusades of the Thirteenth Century! Not to be forgotten, the acting in this film is superb by any measure, and the soundtrack by Mikis Theodorakis kindles Greek Nationalism, just like his music for Zorba The Greek did in 1964. No, do not short change the actors, music, story, structure, editing, and shear inspirational message! Z lives in all of us!


(Note: If you would like to delve more into modern Greek history, in order to better grasp this important topic, please look at this canny bibliography! I have already ordered five of these titles.)


Things banned by the junta:

Peace movements, strikes, labor unions, long hair on men, the beatles, other modern and popular music ( la musique populaire ), Sophocles, tolstoy, Aeschylus, Socrates, Eugene ionesco, Sartre, Chekhov, mark twain, Samuel beckett, the bar association, sociology, international encyclopedias, free press, new math. Also banned is the letter z which =s the spirit of resistance lives  (zi = he lives )


Viva le film critique!