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When Costa-Gavras’ ‘Z’ Ventured Into New Oscar Territory

When Costa-Gavras’ ‘Z’ Ventured Into New Oscar Territory

“Any resemblance to real events and dead or living people is not a coincidence. It is INTENTIONAL.” So reads a title card at the beginning of Costa-Gavras’ Z, set in an unnamed Mediterranean country that could stand in for any number of police states torn between Russian and American influence at the height of the Cold War. The 1969 Franco-Algerian production was fittingly international: While the dialogue (by Spanish writer Jorge Semprún) is in French, the plot itself, based on a book by Greek author Vassilis Vassilikos, adheres to events in Greece following the 1963 assassination of a popular pacifist candidate (whose counterpart is played by Yves Montand) who’d dared to oppose the ruling junta. The titular letter, painted across the street in a climactic scene, was a protest slogan that meant “He lives.”

“Here is the new Hitchcock we have been awaiting,” crowed THR about the Greek director. “Whatever the political commitments of its makers, Z is a slick, knockout of a political thriller, the fictional anonymity of its real life setting and characters only serving to broaden its implications and its universality,” wrote critic John Mahoney, addressing American filmgoers for whom the assassinations and upheaval of the ’60s were still raw. 

Z was the first film to be Oscar-nominated for best picture and best international feature, a feat Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest accomplished this year.

Z also earned nods for best director and adapted screenplay and won Oscars for editing (Françoise Bonnet) and foreign language film (as the category was then called). Costa-Gavras left the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion empty-handed in 1970, but would end up winning best adapted screenplay for 1982’s Missing, starring Jack Lemmon.

With its sardonic eye, Z remains relevant thanks to its unspecific setting and to a global resurgence of anti-democratic sentiment. Ironically, followers of Vladimir Putin have adopted the letter Z as their symbol. It’s a twist Costa-Gavras might ruefully appreciate, suited to what THR called the film’s “richness of humor, though a bitter and ironic brand it is.” 

This story first appeared in a February stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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