With Sunday’s vote to reject austerity, Greece has been in the news lately. If you’ve read all you can about the vote and what it might mean, but are still looking for more, why not take a break with a fantastic film about a different aspect of Greek history?
Z (available from the Criterion Collection and Hulu), directed by Costa-Gavras, is a lightly-fictionalized account of the attempted cover-up of the assassination of Gregoris Lambrakis, a Greek left-wing, pacifistic senator. The story follows an inquest judge — based on Christos Sartzetakis, who became the President of Greece many years later — trying to get to the bottom of the case amidst police and government resistance as well as attempts on the lives of key witnesses.
Unlike other political thrillers that focus only on the political, some of Z’s 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. These scenes remind you that the late senator is not merely a symbol, but a real person with connections to other real people — as a political idol and also a man with friends, confidants, a wife.
Z is not just a reaction to the assassination of Lambrakis, but a gloriously unsubtle indictment of the ultra-right-wing military coup in Greece that had taken power in 1967, about a year prior to the shooting of the film. 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 —the letter which stood as shorthand for the pro-Lambrakis slogan “Ζει”, meaning “He is alive”.
Despite being clearly about Greece, the film offers only the slightest hints that the film actually takes place in Greece. As it was particularly unlikely Costa-Gavras would have been allowed to shoot in Greece had he wanted to, Z was shot in Algeria. That works to the film’s benefit however, as it makes it clear that Z could take place anywhere. In an interview with Costa-Gavras on the DVD, he said when they toured the film around the world, no matter where they were, audiences thought it was based on a similar event in THEIR country.
In the same interview, Costa-Gavras mentioned recent American screenings, where college students thinking the film is wholly fictional, asked the director if he thought something like Z could really happen… a perfect explanation of why it’s so important to not forget even recent history.