Costa-Gavras' Z is the story of a political crime — an assassination. I have always enjoyed movies of intrigue, corruption, mystery, detective, forensic slants, especially if they are part of the historical dialog, and particularly where there is danger and a forward thinking, persecuted, non-violent underdog.
The movie opens on a speech given by the General at the beginning of the movie, and if you couple it with the speech by Gregoris Lambrakis during the rally later in the movie, it shows the amazing contrasts between these two men. It is always hard to believe that these types of things could really happen in the world. Yet, Gregoris Lambrakis is dead, Martin Luther King is dead, John F. Kennedy is dead, as are other visionaries around the world today and in history. This movie is not just one man's story, but a story depicting the elements of this type of political corruption that feeds fear and reaction that seems to repeat itself like some horrible plague in history.
Z was directed by Costa-Gavras and loosely based on the 1967 novel Z by Vassilis Vassilikos — a novel which he stated was based in fact — a reconstruction of a political crime. Costa-Gavras' film Z was the winner of the 1970 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Costa-Gavras started the film with the following disclaimer: "Any similarity to actual events or persons living or dead is not coincidental. It is intentional."
The film was intentionally set in an unnamed country since Costa-Gavras didn't feel it need to be named, because this sort of thing has happened before in many countries – and it is the mechanism of these types of political crimes that is being addressed in the film. However, it has been determined that the original story which the movie was loosely based on was about the 1963 assassination of liberal deputy Gregoris Lambrakis in Thessaloniki, Greece due to its roots in the novel Z.
Costa-Gavras, in the first video in the bonus features' archive section on this 2009 Criterion Collection DVD, talked about the naming of the movie Z. He pronounced it "zed" and said it was explained at the end of the movie; it means "he lives" — where he likened it to the letter V for victory during the occupation.
Although the story is about what happened to Gregoris Lambrakis, and you really remember him as the central focus of the movie, the two main characters were really the magistrate and a journalist. The incorruptible, honest, and courageous magistrate puts his life, reputation, and livelihood on the line in opposition to all 'popular' advice literally being foisted on him by the current leaders in the government, law enforcement, and even higher. He did this to see justice done in a horrible travesty that opened a nest of internal corruption. The journalist we learn from Vassilis Vassilikos in the archives on the DVD is actually a compilation of three or four different journalists of the day and played by the actor/filmmaker, Jacques Perrin.
The movie was filmed in Algiers, Algeria — chosen because it was a young country at the time with a young cinema and maybe more importantly, because there were no political reasons why it couldn't be made there at that time.
I thought it was very apt that the magistrate in the movie had a similar look and similarly shaped, lightly tinted glasses as Vassilikos wore in the interviews about his book, Z.
There were some outstanding bonus features on the DVD. Criterion did an interview with Costa-Gavras this year (2009) for the DVD. It was great to hear his take on the movie all these years later as well as the impetus for the movie. He also talked about how and where they ended up having to shoot the movie because of political unrest regarding the subject matter in Greece even six years after the event. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard was also interviewed by Critereon about his work shooting of the film, his cameo as the doctor, and working with the cast, the sets, and of course Costa-Gavras.
Also included is an audio commentary to complement the movie that is nearly as good as the movie itself in some ways. It became not just a simple commentary on the movie but almost a documentary of historical information and fascinating trivia of the film, the murder, and all that surrounded it. The commentary was fascinating. It was done by Peter Cowie, film historian and writer.
There was also the trailer that was released for the original film in 1969. And some archival interviews. The first one was with Vassilis Vassilikos talking about his book Z, then with director Costa-Gavras, actor/filmmaker Jacques Perrin, and actors Yves Montand, Irene Papas, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Pierre Dux talking about the film during and after production of the film. I found all the interviews well worth watching.
As noted above, the movie was filmed in 1969 by Costa-Gavras. October 27 2009, the Criterion DVD version will be released as part of the Criterion Collection. I will be looking for more DVD releases from the Criterion Collection and from Costa-Gavras if this one is any measure of their worth.