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april 2009

Scene4 Magazine: "Z-revisited" by Griselda Steiner

"Z" Revisited
Anatomy of Assassination

Academy Award – Best Foreign Language Film by Costa-Gavras, 1970
Starring Yves Montand, Irene Papas
and Jean-Louis Trintingant
Music by Mikis Theodorakis

by Griselda Steiner

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of his political thriller "Z", Greek filmmaker Costa-Gavras, now 76, came to New York City to promote its screening at Film Forum (March 13 – 28th) with radio interviews and public appearances including a lecture at Columbia University.  Renowned for his films "State of Siege" 1972, "Missing" 1982 and "Betrayed" 1988, "Z" was the first to pit heroic individuals seeking truth against corrupt regimes.  Although the event portrayed is obscure -  the murder of Greek leftist Gregoris Lambrakis in 1963 by the military junta - the anatomy of assassination revealed is a classic study. The film begins with a well-plotted murder of a political opponent of a dictatorship made to look like an accident followed by a propaganda blitz creating public confusion.  An investigation of evidence leads to the truth, but is quickly followed by a cover up that leads to murder, arrest or exile of the protagonists.  Several years later, an indictment of the guilty parties ends with either their freedom or lenient sentences. Only in hindsight are the political ramifications made clear with the murdered politician becoming a national martyr. What is sad about "Z" is that its formula mirrors our own recent history.  The use of assassination as a weapon in the hands of illegitimate power brokers that took place in the birthplace of democracy is still a threat as we struggle to re-ignite our own.

I am fortunate to have re-visited "Z" by viewing the film at Film Forum and share with you the original review I wrote a year after the film's release.

Review Written 1970

"Any resemblance to real events, to persons living and dead, is not accidental.  It is DELIBERATE." —Costa-Gavras

Nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture of The Year, Best Foreign Film, Best Director (Costa-Gavras) and Best Screenplay (Jorge Semprun), "Z" is a film of enormous impact and contemporary significance.

In the opening sequence, the Inspector General of the Gendarmerie lectures a group of top government officials on the tactics of his new campaign to rid Greece of subversive elements.  He compares his methods with those used to prevent the spreading of a vine disease that threatens the nation's olive crop.  "As with mildew, the ideological disease must be fought with preventative measures…This year the police will drop leaflets that will warn all peasants of this new disease…Socialism, Imperialism, Anarchism and Communism… God refuses to give light to the Reds!"

"Z", which combines the talents of major European film artists, is an account of the Lambrakis Affair. Gregoris Lambrakis, a professor and Deputy of the Union of Democratic Left, presided at an assembly of the Friends of Peace on May 20, 1963, in Salonika, to protest the placement of Polaris missiles in Greece.  As he left the assembly, he was knocked down by a delivery truck.  Unconscious, he was taken to the hospital and died three days later.  The following investigation led to a charge of assassination by the police, the fall of the Karamanlis government and the rise to power of Georges Papandreou on February 16, 1964.  The military Coup d'Etat, on April 21, 1967 ousted Papandreou and subsequently freed those accused of Lambrakis' assassination.  Filmed in Algeria, both the film and the novel of the same name by Vassili Vassilikos are banned in Greece today.

Greek film director Costa-Gavras, whose first film "Sleeping Car Murder" was a success in the U.S., explains, "The theme of this 'adventure film' which is represented by the letter Z is not a plea in favor of a political party, but a plea in favor of a Man and an Idea even before this man became identified with 'Government' and the Idea had a 'political label'.  The word "zei" in Greek means to "to be alive."  "Z" represents a moral cause, the ideological mildew on the vine of nationalism."

"Z" has the unique quality of capturing an historic moment before it fades into political past.  As a political statement it is a classic of our time, yet is falls short of being a great work of art  because it bears the stamp of distinct and separate styles of film art.  The screenplay is written in the Hollywood tradition, but the photography is in the Cinema Verite style, which simulates documentary. Raoul Coutard, who is Goddard's cameraman, is a master of the Cinema Verite technique.  His photography sets the urgent rhythm and captivates the essence of recovered time, yet it only skims the surface of the content of the screenplay.  In "Battle of Algiers" it was the anonymity of the actors that contributed to their brilliant portrayal of political ideals.  Yves Montand as Lambrakis and Irene Papas as his wife Helene, evoke sentiment yet disappoint in their promise of dramatic performance.  We only glance into their psyches, although Costa-Gavras seemed tempted to further embellish their characters.  The astounding effect of the film resembles that of viewing Oswald's on-the-spot assassination on television, but the film lacks mystery.  On more than one viewing, the content gains clarity without the film expanding in artistic dimension.

The political implications of the film go far beyond the affair in Greece.  There is a great affinity between the violence on screen and what takes place in confrontations around the world.  The politics, although simplified, are as disturbing as those that prompted the Chicago riots.  The assassination in "Z" is as shocking as the murders of the Kennedys. Screenwriter Jorge Semprun, states, "In writing "Z", I wanted to show more that the precise case of 'Z '- the mechanism of political crime in our time."

Mikis Theordorakis (famous for his score of "Zorba the Greek") wrote the music.  Today he is under house arrest in Greece and his music banned.  He composed, then smuggled the music for "Z" to France.  He writes, "Creation as an act of liberty par excellence, withers when the law of Brute Force and Violence prevail. Under these conditions, I am proud and happy that the ensemble of my work is forbidden."


©2009 Griselda Steiner
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Griselda Steiner has written book reviews, drama and poetry published in Scene4. Her new book is on KINDLE, Amazon.Com's Wireless Book Reading Service, is My Take ... Your Take (Cultural Reflections).
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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