Made at the end of the turbulent 1960s, a decade riddled with political assassination and unrest, Greek-born French director Costa-Gavras released his film “Z” in 1969. The film is based on the 1966 novel of the same name written by Vassilis Vassilikos. The book and the film are thinly veiled accounts of the government-sanctioned assassination of Gregoris Lambrakis and the government coverup that followed. The fast-paced thriller was incredibly critical of the military dictatorship that ruled Greece at the film’s release. “Z” made history in becoming the first film to be nominated for the Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film Oscars. It ended up going home with the Best Foreign Language Film award as well as the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and Cannes’ Jury Prize. The film stars a healthy dose of French stars in the roles of the government: Jean-Louis Trintignant (Best Actor at Cannes), Pierre Dux, Yves Montand, François Périer. The cast also includes Greek icon Irene Papas in the role of the fallen politician’s widow.
New York Press critic Armond White sets the film’s production in its historical context in an essay written for the new edition. In it, he says, “Carrying on the tradition of the politically informed films of Francesco Rosi (‘Salvatore Giuliano,’ ‘Hands over the City,’ and ‘The Moment of Truth’), which turned recent politics into complex, engrossing cinematic myths, Costa-Gavras would proceed to advance the political thriller toward a popular mode. His work paralleled that of Gillo Pontecorvo (‘The Battle of Algiers’) and Elio Petri (‘The Tenth Victim,’ ‘We Still Kill the Old Way,’ ‘Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion’), whose political exposés were also accessible as action films. This trend was distinct from such earnest, earlier cultural movements as Italian neorealism and Russian formalism in that it permitted socially conscious, politically motivated artists to pursue personal causes, infected with the excitement of the era’s post–New Wave aesthetic. Costa-Gavras was inspired to make his next leap forward in 1966, when his brother, still living in Greece, sent him the new Vassilis Vassilikos novel, ‘Z,’ a fictional account of the Lambrakis assassination. (Its title, from the ancient Greek verb zei, meaning ‘he lives,’ had become a rallying cry for Lambrakis’s supporters.)”
In his 1969 review of the film, the Chicago Sun-Times‘ Roger Ebert comments on the contemporary politics of the film, “The movie at first seems to end with triumph. The rotten core of the government is exposed. The military men and the police chief are indicted for murder, official misconduct, obstructing justice. One of the assassinated leader’s young followers races to bring the widow the good news. He finds her waiting by the seashore. He is triumphant; justice will be done; the government will fall. Irene Papas hears his news silently and then turns and looks out to sea. Her face reflects no triumph; only suffering and despair. What is really left for her to say? Nothing, as we know now. The right wing won in the long run and controls Greece today. This film’s director, writer, composer and Miss Papas are all banned in Greece…Even the letter “Z” (which means “he is alive”) is banned in Greece.”
Praising the film for its timelessness, Dallas Morning Star‘s Chris Vognar says, “Here is a lightning-paced thriller devoid not just of explosions but of gunfire, an edge-of-your-seat procedural drama fueled by ideas, not gimmicks. If you were to see Z in a theater, as you might have when it was re-released this year, the surprise would scarcely be greater if your ticket taker had six arms. And after you watch Criterion’s new edition of Z, delivered in one of the distributor’s customary pristine digital transfers, you might be tempted to stay put, return to the menu and soak it all in a second time.”
DVD Talk‘s Jamie S. Rich highly recommends the new release, saying, “Costa-Gavras’ ‘Z’ is a remarkable recreation of a volatile political tragedy. Adopting a “just the facts” approach and a pseudo-documentarian style, the director sifts through the events before and after an attack on a Socialist leader (Yves Montand) in Greece, building its case and challenging audience perceptions without ever being dogmatic. The new Criterion edition presents the movie with a beautiful new transfer and a handful of informative extras, shedding new light on an important, influential picture.”
DVD Town‘s Christopher Long says of the picture quality, “The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The restored high-def transfer is supervised by [cinematographer] Raoul Coutard and looks as sharp as you would expect from Criterion. It preserves a fine grainy look and its inky black sets just the right mood for this dark political exposé.”
As far as extras go, few reviewers don’t mention the new disc’s interviews with the filmmaker and cinematographer, but DVD Verdict‘s Tom Becker recommends another extra, “If, like me, you’re not up on the post-WW2 political history of Greece, the commentary by film historian Peter Cowie is essential listening. While he occasionally points out the obvious, this is overall a rich, informative track filled with background about the politics of the film, as well as a lot of information about Costa-Gavras and the making of Z. It’s an outstanding track that really adds to the viewing experience.”