Jean-Louis Trintignant in Costa-Gavras's Z (1969). Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures.
As I was zapping one day during my teenage years, I had no clue what I was watching, but I immediately knew it had to take place in Uruguay.
The clothing of the civilians being detained, the uniforms of the soldiers, the helmets… Everything was there. I could even smell the river.
It was the beginning of Costa-Gavras’ Golden Globe-nominated State of Siege (1972), about the kidnapping and execution of CIA-approved torture teacher-for-hire Don Mitrione, at the hands of the Tupamaros urban guerrilla. But as powerful as State of Siege was, it is dwarfed compared to the Oscar- and Cannes-winning Z (1969), which masterfully deals with the 1963 assassination of Greek parliament member and peace activist Gregorios Lambrakis and the subsequent investigation.
In celebration of the movie’s 40th anniversary, Z will be shown Aug. 25 at Santikos @ the Bijou (7:30 pm), in what will be an appropriate season-ending to San Antonio’s best film getaway: TPR’s Cinema Tuesdays, an ideal place to cure yourself of the “I don’t like subtitles” nonsense---a great film is a great film, and there’s plenty of great films that are also entertaining, in case you’re the type that thinks that the purpose of movies is only “to entertain.” But Cinema Tuesdays is also great for the subtitle-impaired crowd, for it has a well-balanced mix of American classics and foreign gems.
Back to Z: 40 years after its release, the movie takes me back to an international dark era of right-wing political assassinations, but it also reminds me of that universal cancer that send idiots to jail (Lynndie England, the face of Abu Ghraib) while the big fish who set the stage for these abuses to happen are as free as birds. A similar thing happens in Z, and I'll let you figure that one out for yourself.
As shown on State of Siege (and countless well-proven CIA documents), the US worked hand-in-hand with Latin American military dictatorships, and also were buddies with the Greek junta that ordered the attack on Lambrakis. But Z works on many levels, even as fiction.
Most importantly, despite the usual (and, at times, passé) heart-on-your-sleeve approach, the movie is effective thanks to Costa-Gavra’s brutal documentary style and the wonderful performances of Ives Montand (Lambrakis), Jean-Louis Trintignant (the government-appointed judge who investigates the “accident” and realizes the government is full of it), and the great Irene Papas (Lambrakis’ widow).
Z is a must for any young filmmaker who wants to construct tension on screen without the usual cheap shots or kicks in the balls. Smart political thrillers don’t get much better than this.