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Z: a perfect place to start the New Year. Why the last letter of the alphabet? Because it’s also the sound (zee) of the Greek word for “he lives”, a cry of new or renewed life. This doubling of meaning is exactly what Greek filmmaker Costa-Gavras had in mind when he gave his 1969 political thriller this famous one-letter title.
Z follows the return to an unnamed country of a political leader known only as the Deputy (Yves Montand). As his entourage arranges for him to address his supporters on the topic of peace and freedom, an opposing mob gathers and threatens to kill him. One man clubs the Deputy in the head, sending him into a coma, and sending a range of authorities into action. The doctors analyze his still-living brain; the Magistrate examines the case; the rulers obfuscate; and the crowds riot. Once the Deputy is dead, his supporters insist that he and his cause still live. “Zei”, they cry, speaking the only Greek word in the movie.
Z was filmed in Algeria and acted in French, with Irene Pappas as the Deputy’s wife standing out as the lone and noticeably Greek figure among the cast. (Pappas’s ethnicity is hard to mistake: she has the dark eyebrows and hair and the long straight nose of a classical statue. When she played Clytemnestra in Michael Kakoyannis’ 1977 film Iphigenia, it was like looking at the ancient queen come to life.) Z could never have been made in Greece. Two years into what would be the seven-year rule of a military junta, Costa-Gavras’ overt criticism of the police state would have been extremely dangerous.
Besides that one word cried out by the Deputy’s supporters, the only signs that the film is a thinly veiled reference to the junta are clever glances at Greek lettering here and there. Pappas holds a copy of Ta Nea (The News), the left-leaning newspaper. Medals shown in the beginning of the film are from Greek campaigns. And, most appropriately, a close-up of a reporter’s Selectric typewriter ball shows Greek characters, with the Z popping up front and center. But everything else, from the dark-glasses-wearing leader of the police state, to the murkiness of due process, to the reaction of the mob, rings utterly and explicitly true of Greece.
I saw Z in mid-December, and applauded Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts for picking that moment to screen a film about Greece’s struggle between anarchy, independence, and authoritarian rule. Z is full of scenes of police standing by while mobs threaten to take over, and then entering the fray too late and too forcefully. How prescient of the MFA to synchronize Costa-Gavras’ film with riots going on in Athens and other major Greek cities during most of December 2009. Or was it?
The sad truth is that riots in Greece—between a mob that rejects the very notion of authority and a policing force that doesn’t know how to assert authority without oppressing—these riots have become an unremarkable occurrence in Greek life. The MFA’s scheduling was pure luck; they could screen Z any day of the year and it would be timely. Costa-Gavras’ film has had a much longer life than perhaps he could have hoped for—and for, sadly, all the wrong reasons.