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I’ve long been drawn to the idea of Z; I first heard of it when I was young and my family would always have the Leonard Maltin Movie & Video guides. I would spend hours flipping through and reading about movies. Sometimes I’d turn to a random page, and just start reading, or other times, I’d pick themes. One of my favorites was films with titles that’re just one letter. X – The Man with the X-Ray Eyes was one I remember, as was Sssssss (rather, a different kind of just one letter), but most of these had one thing in common — they were typically pretty lousy (and somewhat ironically) B-movies.
There was, of course, one exception that always popped out at me. Z — not only one of the coolest letters by virtue of rarity, but also a four-star Oscar winner. I’d always wanted to see it, well, just because of the title, really. (I suppose you filmmakers out that can take a lesson from that; the title DOES matter, particularly when you’re young and impressionable.)
Later, when reading one of my Mad back-issues, one of the movie satires (sadly, I don’t recall which one — I believe it was a Barbra Streisand movie, but I could be mistaken) had an exchange along the lines of:
“Z” [A Large balloon with the one letter filling the entire area in a similar font to the logo of the film]
“Wow, you’re so bored you’re asleep?”
“No, I was just reminding the audience of a film that actually made sense/was good.” [Can't remember which one it was.]
While I can’t remember the article it was in, I can remember that panel almost perfectly — drawn by Mort Drucker (as most of the movie satires were) — in the bottom row on the right hand page. If I had even the remotest drawing ability, I could do a quick sketch right now from memory even. I was constantly drawn to it — the enigmatic, iconic title — above all else, right next to a recommendation from Mad of all places.
It took me about a decade to finally see it, but it was one of the first films I put into my Netflix queue. And even once it came, it took me a few months to even put it in my player. But I did.
Mad and Maltin were right. This is an amazing film that should be seen by everyone. It’s beautifully shot and very well written. The film is a lightly-fictionalized account of the political assassination, and subsequent attempted cover-up, of Gregoris Lambrakis, a Greek left-wing, pacifistic senator. However unlike many political thrillers, the film shows all aspects of his death. The political ramifications are well-covered of course, but some of the most powerful scenes involve the late senator’s wife coming to grips with his loss: Wandering around his last hotel room, looking, holding his personal items — a photograph he’d set up, a book he was reading, a shirt — remembering his life in happier times as well as seeing him die on the operating table. The Lambrakis analogue is not merely a symbol as you might expect him to be in a film like this; he is not a MacGuffin. He is a real person with connections to other real people both as a political idol and as a man with friends, confidants, a wife.
Even aside from the reality of the characters, the story is absolutely gripping in the way everything unfolds. After the assassination itself, the story follows an inquest judge (based on Christos Sartzetakis, who much later became the President of Greece) trying to get to the bottom of the case in the midst of resistance from the police and the government and attempts on the lives of key witnesses.
The film was made in reaction not only to this case (which took place in 1963, 6 years before the film was made), but to the 1967 ultra-right-wing military coup in Greece which led the country until 1974. The film begins with a nose-thumbing twist on the standard disclaimer you see at the end of almost every film: “Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is DELIBERATE.” It ends with a list of things banned by the 1967 junta, including long hair on men, pop music, Tolstoy, Socrates, Sartre, Mark Twain, Samuel Beckett, new math, the free press and, above all, the letter Z, a reference to the Greek letter which doubled as shorthand for the slogan “???”, meaning “He is alive” (the “he” referring to Lambrakis).
A knowledge of Greek politics at the time is not necessary for enjoyment of this film — in fact, there are only the slightest hints that the film actually takes place in Greece (it was shot in Algeria), but, rather, it is intended to be seen as taking place anywhere. In the interview between Costa-Gavras and the author of the book the film was based on, Vassilis Vassilikos, it was mentioned that when they toured the film around the world, no matter where, audiences thought it was based on a similar event in THEIR country. However, Costa-Gavras also mentioned that recent screenings in America for college students have led to these audiences wondering if something like this could really happen; a sad and somewhat disturbing comment on the naïvety of people when it comes to politics, power struggles, history and the political climates of other countries.
Lambrakis, though left-wing, was not a Communist, though often labelled as such by his political enemies, and it was perhaps this label that was used to stir up fear and hatred amongst both those who assassinated him and those who stood by while it happened. While I would have liked to hear a bit more about Lambrakis’ politics (though, I am glad it wasn’t in the film as that would have diminished the universality of the story), I’ve always been a firm believer that the antidote to speech you dislike is more speech, and Z is a example of why this is so. Silencing those you disagree with (through any means, not just violence and murder) is an immoral act, and one that has further ramifications rather than just letting one speak. The junta in 1967 took place right before the elections when it was clear that left-wing sympathies had been stirred so strongly that the leftist candidate would win — the right-wing generals felt it was their duty to “protect” their country, again by silencing those who disagreed with them, including those involved in the Lambrakis case — including the imprisonment and torture of Christos Sartzetakis, the inquest judge, and Mikis Theodorakis, the composer of Z‘s score.