At the end of the alphabet is the letter “Z.” In our youth we could breathe a sigh of relief that we, in fact, did remember all 26 letters of the alphabet and that we weren’t doomed to a life of illiteracy; to be a statistic of the lower, lower class , who among other things cannot afford themselves the ability to read or write or to communicate successfully with the outside world. For too many of these people, the letter “Z” means nothing; mimicable in dirt but without tangibility, dramatic in construction but flaccid in interpretation.
But for those whose language is of a Latin or Greek descent, the letter “Z” – zee, zeta or zed – signifies rarity, hundreds or thousands of words instead of tens or hundreds of thousands. We perk up at the sight of it or hearing of it because it usually signifies an interesting or scientific term. In that way, it’s striking in its rarity. But when Costa-Gavras titled his iconic third film Z he wanted to strike the audience with its ubiquity. Masterfully maddening, meddling and caustically blunt, Z succeeds in pushing its message organically where many of its logical influences, contemporaries and where modern films fall comically flat. This film feels genuine.
The ingenuity most likely has to do with the immediacy of the subject matter and the political zing afforded to it; it helps that this story takes place before the deux ex machina era of cellular technology and the Internet. The story has to be logical and syllogistic becaiuse there is no quick out to a discrepancy in logic here. Title character Z (Yves Montand) plays a rather pensive leader of an anti-war faction, whose rallies upset the incumbent profit-focused regime. Fittingly, the military whose “democracy” takes extreme liberty with the word does everything it can to upset an impeding rally and speech by our main character – sudden venue change and lack of active protection – and in the midst of the rather obvious confusion that follows the speech (radicalized youths + “freedom” of speech and expression; what could go wrong), Z is struck on the head, and after several quick surgeries, dies.
Though the death is ruled an accident by the military, government and press initially, the medical staff (whose lack of corruption serves as a nice foil to viral idea spreading – science for science’s sake, if you will) decides that the death was in fact not a by-product of a drunken driver, but rather a sharp blow to the head. What follows is an idealistic rag-tag coup: witnesses and a journalist spend the middle part of the movies piecing together an hypothesis to reflect the doctors’ cause of death; a cover-up uncovered. Though initially dissuaded by the Attorney General to drop the case as part of a rather unconvincing greater good harangue, the do-gooder magistrate decides to charge and try top level officials for murder, collusion and abuse of power.
The last three minutes of this film is where it earns its nomination. Initially declared a victory by Z’s compatriots, the camera cuts to our solipsistic journalist reading the outcome of the trial: minimal jail sentences for the murderers, internal wrist-slaps for the high ranking officials and grim and “mysterious” deaths for the involved witnesses; we then cut to another journalist who throws our first journalist in jail and describes in harrowing detail the aftermath of a violent junta that rocked Greece’s political structure while the apparently petty battle for the greater good meant nothing. She then proceeds to list a comically grim list of items and ideas that were now banned, under penalty of death. The final shot is the icing, which I will not spoil here. It’s blood-draining.
As powerful a punch as Z packed over forty years ago, it did not win Best Picture in 1969; that honor went to another harrowing reflection of the love-all late ’60s, Midnight Cowboy. Z did win Best Foreign Film (being that Costa-Gavras was a French-Greek expat) and along with its nomination for Best Picture, made for a powerful one-two punch onto the world stage; its striking political immediacy was relevant back then and one could argue even more relevant in 2013. Dictators still rule totalitarian regimes around the globe – even among the increase in technology, access to resources and spread of new ideas of reformation. But we, all, choose to live in a world whose internal politics and wanton policy trump the chance to grow as a species; if Costa-Gavras is right, it will be our eventual downfall.
And as “Z” – zee, zeta and zed – is the end of the alphabet and is striking in rarity, our own hubris might be the human race’s own downfall and end of all things.