Director Costa-Gavras is no stranger to controversy. The son of a Greek mother and a Russian father (who fought in the Greek resistance in World War II), the young man was enthralled by American films and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, later enrolling in a French film school. Inspired and encouraged by such cineastes as Godard, Truffaut, Jacques Demy, and Rene Clement, he began his career with The Sleeping Car Murders (1965) and Shock Troops (1967), which were well received. Later films included the interrogation drama The Confession (1970), and his forays into mainstream Hollywood pictures have offered such conspiracy-bent tales as Missing (1982) and Betrayed (1989). An international director with a taste for political intrigue matched only by Oliver Stone, Costa-Gavras's output has been a tapestry of machinations and deceit, crowned perhaps by 1969's Z, which earned Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film and Best Editing. Based on the May 1963 assassination of left-wing Greek politician and pacifist Grigoris Lambrakis, the film never explicitly states the country in which it is based or the people it represents. Which may not have been important anyway, as it was banned in Greece upon release. But as the opening credits note, "Any resemblance to actual events, to persons living or dead, is not the result of chance. It is deliberate." Based on the novel by Vassilis Vassilikos (which regrettably is out of print at this writing), Yves Montand stars in Z as a leftist politician ("The Deputy") in a small European country ruled by an autocratic military government. A former Olympic champion and a practicing physician, the Deputy has arrived in a major city to speak at a rally, which the local authorities do not welcome. In fact, in order to discourage the event, the permit for rally's large hall is denied at the last moment, and a smaller venue is forced upon the organizers. Given the political climate of the time, a loosely organized right-wing mob decides to mount a protest, and the local police assigned to security are strangely passive. And then it happens. After giving his speech, the Deputy emerges from the hall and into the street, where it appears he is struck down by a runaway delivery truck. It happens in full view of hundreds of witnesses, but his hospitalization (and later death) throws the government into disarray as they scramble to apprehend the men in the truck and quell any assassination rumors. Drunk-driving and manslaughter charges are lodged against the perpetrators, but the Examining Magistrate assigned to the case (Jean-Louis Trintignant) has his doubts. A young photojournalist (Jacques Perrin) launches his own investigation. And with the emergence of a stubborn surprise witness and some unusual autopsy results, it soon becomes clear that the crowd in the street didn't witness an accident, but a murder.
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With its politically charged undercurrent in an era social turmoil in America and around the world, the fact that Z won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film may come as something of a surprise the traditionally conservative Academy has rarely embraced controversial subjects, and in 1969 the nation was still shaken by the recent assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy. What may come as more of a surprise is that Z took home the statuette for Best Editing from a field that was not limited to foreign pictures. And yet, for all of its references to Greece and a corrupt junta government (the score by Greek dissident Mikis Theodorakis says more than mere words), Z is not a political diatribe as much as it's a smart detective story with an engaging cast and swift plotting. The actual murderers and their initial plot are never much of a secret to viewers, but as the photojournalist and Examining Magistrate conduct their investigations, the larger puzzle is revealed piece by piece, with an ever-widening conspiracy that involves local thugs, businessmen, and eventually government officials. Despite his limited screen-time, Yves Montand as the Deputy is central to the story, and the veteran actor conveys warmth, humility, and great passion as the politician who envisions a socialist state in the face of military expansion it takes an actor with Montand's stature to give the film its thematic weight. As the Magistrate, Jean-Louis Trintignant plays his part in a low-key manner, aware of his judicial power, but also knowing that his final conclusions will shake the government to its foundations. As he notes after collecting evidence, a drunk-driving case is the simplest explanation, and the most improbable a conspiracy is far more complex, and the only logical synopsis. Z ends on a positive note, but just barely. The conspiracy may be broken, but the cautionary themes inherent in the story are emphasized in the playful coda, which casts the future of the unidentified country in an Orwellian gloom it's a small grace note from Costa-Gavras that's both witty and disturbing.
Wellspring's DVD release of Z: The Masterworks Edition features a restored print that has a few soft moments, but is generally free from collateral wear, while the anamorphic transfer (1.66:1) is strong and free of defects. The French audio comes in a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, although it has its thin points, and purists may prefer the original mono track, which is also included. The splendid features include a commentary by Costa-Gavras (with subtitles), a retrospective interview with the director (also subtitled), a comprehensive restoration demo, stills, cast/crew notes, and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.