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The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

1960s Film Explores Greek Politics

‘Any resemblance to real events and persons living or dead is not coincidental; it’s INTENTIONAL.”

The ’60s was a monumental decade for film, but perhaps no other film from that era is quite as exciting as Costa-Gavras’ “Z.”

On the one hand, “Z” is one of those rare foreign films that achieved early crossover success with American audiences: It received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture (the first foreign film to do so since Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” all the way back in 1938) and picked up the Oscars for Best Editing and Best Foreign Language Film.

On the other hand (or with it, as it were), “Z” unapologetically — and dare I say triumphantly — gives the middle finger to both contemporary audiences familiar with its political history and to modern American moviegoers quick to associate the words “foreign film” with “slow, obtuse and boring.”

The quote at the start of this column appears at the tail end of the opening credits of “Z” and warrants a bit of historical context. Greek director Costa-Gavras lived most of his life in France, exiled from his homeland and denied entrance to film school in the United States because of his father’s involvement with radical, left-wing activities in Greece.

“Z,” released in 1969, was a response to the assassination of Greek politician and activist Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963; Costa-Gavras makes no pretensions about his inspiration, recreating the tumultuous riots and scandalous arrests that followed the incident and simply transposing them onto a French backdrop. In a brilliant bit of collaboration, Costa-Gavras deploys the militant, Greek island beats of composer Mikis Theodorakis’ bouzouki (a mandolin-type instrument) to propel the action of the film and to not-so-subtly remind us of the real events it is based upon.

In contrast to many of today’s vanilla political thrillers (I’m looking at you, “The Ides of March”), “Z” boasts a genuinely gripping story, a cavalcade of great performances and the filmmaking expertise to keep everything effortlessly afloat for just over two hours. “Z” is split into two distinct halves, and while each half follows a very different rhythm, both add up to an excellent whole.

The film kicks off when an otherwise unnamed Deputy (Yves Montand), after speaking at a pre-election rally, receives a club to the back of the head from a political rival speeding by on the back of a truck. Amid widespread rioting in the streets, the deputy is rushed to the hospital, but not in time to stop the inevitable. The second half of the film follows a young magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) as he labors to track down the perpetrators of the assassination and to assemble evidence against a number of high-ranking officers suspected to be involved in the plot against the deputy’s life.

Throughout the first half of the film, Costa-Gavras keeps everything running at full speed. The relentless pace of Theodorakis’ score is matched by razor-sharp editing and kinetic camera movements. Things slow down significantly in the second half to match the methodical pace of the legal proceedings, but only after a stellar centerpiece scene featuring Irene Papas as the deputy’s wife. For nearly five solid minutes, Papas emotes beautifully and wordlessly as she receives word from the hospital of her husband’s passing. This transition between the two sections ingeniously captures the intensity of his film’s beginning with the deliberation that characterizes its second half.

In the film’s final minutes, Costa-Gavras ratchets up the intensity anew in a thrilling sequence where the magistrate indicts a slew of government officials for their involvement in the murder of the deputy.

Lest you leave the movie with the familiar warm and fuzzy feeling that typically accompanies cold, hard justice, “Z” has one more surprise up its sleeve. The action abruptly comes to an end before the prosecution as Costa-Gavras cuts away to a newsroom several months into the future, where a reporter announces the dismissal of the prosecutor, the deaths of nearly every key witness to the deputy’s murder and the criminally lax sentences finally assigned to the previously indicted criminals.

To the director’s credit, though, we were warned of the film’s intentional resemblance to real life; while we may expect movies to resolve themselves tidily, sadly the same cannot be said of the dramas that unfold in our everyday lives.

Tim Markatos is a senior in the College. The Cinema Files appears every other Friday in the guide.

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