Costa Gavras’s political thriller has lost nothing in the forty-two years since its release. Watching it today, with popular uprisings against military rule taking place across North Africa and the Middle East, you marvel at the film’s astuteness. Of course, Costa Gavras was the son of a Greek Resistance fighter who was jailed after the war for his Communist politics. And Jorge Semprún, who co-wrote the screenplay, was also a man of the Left whose father had been a governor under the Spanish Republic until its defeat by General Franco. Both understood the inner workings of military dictatorships all too well.
The film resonates on multiple levels, and this was intentional. Though faithful to the Vassilis Vassilikos novel about the 1963 assassination of an idealistic and charismatic Greek senator, Grigoris Lambrakis, by paid agents of the right-wing government (backed by the United States), “Z” goes well beyond those events. Yves Montand, who plays Lambrakis, saw his character as representing not only the assassinated Greek senator, but other assassinated leaders of the time, including JFK, Martin Luther King, and the Moroccan reformer, Mehdi Ben Barka. These figures inspired people to hope for a better world. The violent manner in which they died, and the unresolved questions surrounding their deaths, led many to suspect an official cover-up.
“Unmask the Killers!” chant protesters in the movie—a call that galvanizes the photo-journalist character, played by Jacques Perrin, into a serious investigation of the murder. The real-life journalists upon whom Perrin’s character (a composite) was based wound up in prison, and we are informed that this was the photojournalist’s fate at the end of “Z.” Similarly, the honest magistrate played by Jean-Louis Trintignant is taken off the case. His real-life counterpart was imprisoned; in a satisfying turn of fate, however, he was elected President of Greece when the Junta fell. (Vassilikos was placed under house arrest, as was the composer of the film’s score, Mikis Theodorakis, best known for “Zorba the Greek.” Theodorakis also served in the Greek government after the end of military rule.)
Some of the most memorable scenes in the film involve minor characters—all based on actual people whose stories were unearthed by Costa Gavras and Semprún. A fireman witnesses a thug beating up one of the senator’s supporters and shames a policeman into arresting the man, who is discovered to be in the pay of the government. A simple sort of guy who varnishes coffins for a living adds a critical piece of evidence to the magistrate’s case, and refuses to budge from his account even when threatened by the generals. Their stubborn commitment to the truth demonstrates that action is possible. ”We can’t not be involved; we’re not an island,” as the director once said. ”By not taking a position, you take a position.”
And in the end, “Z” makes the authorities look ridiculous. To the refrains of a mocking dance version of a military march, complete with Zorba-esque bouzoukis, the generals march, one by one, into the magistrate’s office and are forced to sign confessions. Watching how fear could be dissolved by laughter, I couldn’t help but recall the Kentucky Fried Chicken jokes shared among the protesters in Tahrir Square.