Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Tackling the Twelve: Z

"Z", directed by Costa-Gavras in 1969, is a conspiracy thriller. Sort of. Its the grandaddy of the modern conspiracy thriller, I think, which would make John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate" the Great-Grandaddy. Only its not really a thriller. None of the mechanics of that genre are in operation. Instead its an art film of the type that would never get made today - it straddles genres, has a diffuse, meandering narrative and lacks a main character, but it has a starry cast, is well produced and is extremely serious in intent.

The story traces the events leading up to the assassination of a charismatic leftist politician (Yves Montand) and the investigation into those events - and the ensuing cover up by the military and police - by a magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in an unnamed European country in the 1960s. It was shot in Algiers entirely in French by an obviously French cast, yet is based on the death of Greek Politician Gregoris Lambrakis in 1963. At the time it was released Greece was under a Military Junta (which is suggested by the film's ending), and the film was seen as a piece of political satire. There is some satirical content - the lengthy final list of things banned by the junta has a comic silliness ("long hair on men, popular music, Tolstoy, Sartre, sociology") which is then undermined by the last item - the letter "Z", which in the Ancient greek "Zi" meant "He lives" and was therefore seen as a symbol of the resistance, making the film's title a potent political statement on its own.

The assassination itself, which seems almost stupidly inept and ridiculous in the film, is based almost exactly on Lambrakis' murder - at a violent, boisterous night rally, two men drive up in a three-wheeled truck and the one in the back clubs the politician in the head in full view of hundreds of people, including dozens of policemen. This comes almost 20 minutes into the film, just when an audience might have been wondering where exactly all this was going. Even then, it only really gains focus when Trintignant begins his investigation and he becomes the main protagonist in the second half. And it retains its odd ability to wander away from the main characters to follow a seemingly minor character or a nuance - hence we spend time with one of the assassins as he tries to pick up men in bars and are treated to a very nouvelle vague jump-cut flashback of Montand's to what appears to be his wife discovering that he was having an affair.

It is a terrifically strange film. The conspiracy thriller, as defined in the 1970s by Alan J. Pakula in the likes of "The Parallax View" and "All the Presidents Men" and by Sidney Pollack in "Three Days of the Condor" is generally suffused with an atmosphere heavy with dread, with the threat from the stranger in the background, and the constant awareness of surveillance. "Z", however, has a bizarrely light tone, almost sunny, or even bland in its treatment of a steadily gathering evil. Almost as if Gavras wasn't quite aware of the power of this material. Only its coal-black stone cold coda (which actually reminded me of the ending of "American Grafitti" more than anything else) is as brutal as this sub-genre routinely feels, with its sucker punch of unfair fates for good people. Which was perhaps deliberate on the director's part - it feels all the more shocking for having come entirely out of the blue, its plain statements so at odds with what went before.

What went before is interesting. Gavras seems unconcerned by any need to obey genre rules. He follows the assassination sequence with an action scene - two men grappling in the back of the three-wheeler as it careens through backstreets, then a blackly comic scene where a young policeman arrests one of the assassins and he shrugs the whole thing off. Then there are numerous scenes of men sitting in rooms talking, a couple of quick chase sequences, and the odd instance of pure visual poetry. Gavras often opens a scene with an jarring establishing shot then moves the camera or the action away to contextualise. These camera movements are occasionally shockingly ostentatious, as are a couple of thrilling transitions he introduces. This all introduces a note of visual tension lacking in the narrative itself, which is too relaxed and leisurely to allow for any real suspense. But then suspense may be beside the point since Gavras is plainly criticising the Greek authorities. Perhaps to turn such a criticism into a Hitchcockian entertainment would somehow demean the subject.

As a piece of cinema it works, if in unexpected ways. The cast is solid, though nobody really has a three-dimensional character to play. The two assassins, Vago and Yago (Marcel Boffuzzi and Renato Salvatori) register most memorably, since their characters have vitality and energy and their fair share of scenes. Montand is effortless and has an abundance of presence and Trintignant, who was in the middle of a great five years or so in which he starred in the likes of "Un Homme et Une Femme", "Il Conformista", "The Great Silence" "Ma Nuit Chez Maud" and "Les Biches" is great with a limited amount to do. His intelligence and integrity is obvious after two scenes, even with those quick, flashing eyes generally hidden behind a pair of sunglasses. The score by Mikis Theadorakis, which combines jaunty, exciting Greek arrangements with some ominous synthesizer sounds, is one of the only aspects of the film which is obviously Greek in origin, and it helps hold all of the disparate strands together. Gavras would go on to make other "political" thrillers, most notably the fantastic "State of Siege" in 1972. He later worked in Hollywood, made a few more middling thrillers with minimal political content, and one great one ("Missing" (1982)), but "Z" remains his keynote work, the film that will be in the first line of his obituary.



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