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Monday, December 10, 2007

Z: Documenting a political assassination

I've just discovered a DVD that upon first viewing entered my pantheon of favorite flicks. Filmed almost 40 years ago now, Costa Gavras's award-winning thriller Z is essential viewing, with social insights that still resonate. It retells in fictionalized form the story of the 1963 assassination of Greek progressive politician Gregoris Lambrakis.

Tension filled with a camera constantly in motion to capture the sense of an impending explosion, it's a movie fueled by righteous indignation. There are moments of surprising humor as well, and the faux warning at the end of the opening credits gives us a clue to the director's irreverent attitude:

"Any similarity to real life events, persons dead or living, isn't by chance. It's intended."

Z is an exceptional piece of filmmaking that presents its narrative with compelling energy and striking images. In the course of recreating the real life murder, cover-up and investigation, the director intercuts flashbacks that give added insight into the main characters' backstories. The performances are uniformly amazing by actors portraying persons both sympathetic and sinister.

Released in 1969, at a time when the US was experiencing its own bit of military inspired social turbulence, Z went on to become one of the top grossing foreign films in American history. I can well imagine that the political sensibility of its tragic hero, a pacifist senator, hit home with the youth of that period (and still will with our own). His deceptively simple beliefs are amplified through the town square from loud speakers as the players in the murder drama to follow take their places on that stage:
A cannon is fired, and a teacher's monthly salary goes up in smoke. ... Around the world too many soldiers are ready to fire on anything moving toward progress. ... Even imagination is suspect yet it's needed to solve world problems. ... We serve the people and the people need the truth. The truth is the start of powerful, united action.
Why would such sentiments provoke a violent response? Because they represent ideas that threatened the status quo. Greece was fumbling its way toward a modern democracy and the ongoing political struggle challenged the powers that were. More interested in protecting their privilege than safeguarding rights or promoting social progress, the military cracked down on those advocating for such change.

Their tactics may sound eerily similar to those of present day regimes ... local, national and global. Espousing the need to rally behind god and country, they denounced diverse ideologies as bankrupt and politicians as universally corrupt. Claiming a moral superiority informed by their faith, they rejected science and intellectualism. Believing nationalism is the highest good, they renounced all things foreign.

Z is a very artful attempt to shed light on what took place in Greece in 1963. The perpetrators of that crime tried to spin events to exonerate themselves and perpetuate their world view. They recognized the importance of controlling the social narrative, and governments to this day try to manipulate media toward that end. Artists will always play a unique role in countering that misinformation, and that's precisely what this film does.

Unfortunately, even when their lies become transparent, those in power often wield enough judicial levers to shield themselves from punishment. In keeping with that reality, this story doesn't have a very surprising ending. Thanks to Costa Gavras, however, the assassins couldn't escape the damning judgement of public opinion so easily.
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