Z (1969): Costa-Gavras Seminal, Oscar-Winning Political Film,Starring Yves Montand and Jean-Louis Trintignant

An explicitly political film with a purpose and message, Z is also a thoroughly commercial film, as informative as it is provocative and entertaining.
Film Review
“Z,” Costa-Gavras’s extraordinarily compelling thriller is one of the fastest, most exciting political melodramas ever made, by him or by other filmmakers. “Z” is also one of the few foreign-language films to have been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.  
Based on the true story of the Lambrakis affair, as it was presented in fictional form in the novel “Z,” the movie concerns political corruption, injustice, and conspiracy of the highest order.  In 1965, Gregorios Lambrakis, a Greek professor of medicine who was politically liberal, was struck down by a delivery truck as he was leaving a meeting of the organization “Friends of Peace.” 
The investigation of his death uncovered a scandalous network of corruption and illegality in the police and in the government. As a result, the leader of the opposition party, George Papandreou, became Premier, but, unfortunately, in 1967, a military coup d’etat overturned the legitimate government.
No doubt, “Z,” which won the Jury Prize and the Best Actor judo for Jean Louis Trintignant at the Cannes Film Festival, became all the more popular after the military junta.
The score is by Mikis Theodorakis, who became internationally known in 1964 for his music for Michael Cacoyannis’ “Zorba the Greek.”  The composer was under arrest in Greece at the time that “Z was released.
In the 1960s, Costa-Gavras was a young Greek expatriate director. “Z” (and his other movies, such as the 1982 English-speaking “Missing”) is based on the tradition of American gangster and prison pictures and Hollywood’s anti-Fascist melodramas, combining the elements of social urgency and message-driven tales to maximum effect.
The director uses a searching, restless camera that’s a little too self-consciously dynamic. And his staccato editing and use of loud music to build up suspense for the violent sequences are at timed manipulative. But overall, “Z” never loses emotional contact with its audience.
“Z” was shot in Algeria, in French, as a French-Algerian co-production, with a powerful score by Mikis Theodorakis (who was under house arrest in Greece at the time), and a script by Jorge Semprun, an exile from Spain.
The all-star cast is headed by Yves Montand, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Irene Papas, and Renato Salvatori. Boasting great cinematography by the French master Raoul Coutard, “Z” won the Oscar Award for Best Foreign-Language Picture in 1969.
The film’s innovative style launched a whole cycle of films that used the format of fictionalized investigative as a camouflage to explore real-life events, such as Bertolucci’s 1970 masterpiece, The Conformist, and years later, the 1983 Midnight Express, written by Oliver Stone and directed by Alan Parker.

End Note

The film was initially given a more academic title, “The Anatomy of a Political Assassination,” which was later changed to Z.


Constantin Costa-Gavras’s 1969 Oscar-winning political thriller Z, arguably his best film to date, is available in a wonderfully remastered DVD version, which contains new interviews with the director and ace cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who shot many of the French New Wave films.


The Deputy (Yves Montand)

The Examining Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant)

Helene, the Deputy’s Wife (Irene Papas)

Photojournalist (Jacques Perrin)

Manuel (Charles Denner)

Public Prosecutor (Francois Perrier)

The General (Pierre Dux)

The Colonel (Julien Guiomar)

Matt (Bernard Fresson)

Yago (Renato Salvatori)


Oscar Context

Ever since the establishment of the Best Foreign-Language Picture, only a few foreign movies have been nominated for the main category, the Best Picture Oscar.  A French-Algerian co-production starring Yves Montand and Jean Louis Trintignant, Z enjoyed a special position in 1969.


“Z” won the Best Foreign Language Picture and it was also nominated in the general competitive category of Best Picture. According to Academy rules, foreign pictures that have opened in the U.S. are eligible to compete in all the other categories. Thus, “Z” also won an Oscar for its editor, Francoise Bonnot.


To qualify for Foreign-Language Picture, however, a film must be sent by its country of origin to the Academy, where a committee selects the five nominees. “Z” qualified on both grounds: It was officially submitted as Algeria’s entry, and it opened in the U.S. in December.

Reel/Real Impact

Z illustrates the power of film as an agency of social change, one that can inform, encouraging us as ordinary citizens to open our eyes, to become political active, to fight for justice and change.

The broader political contexts, both American and international, is crucial for understating the reception and impact of the film.  It was released in a highly politicized time, during the painful and divisive Vietnam War and Anti-War Movement.

Internationally, it was just after the Israeli Six Day War, in June 1967, and the Cultural Revolution in China, and the Czech Uprising.