As a movie reviewer, there are few things more galling than to have to admit that, having watched a film, you didn’t entirely get it. That you could see something of merit there, but that it didn’t speak to you — and that at least part of the reason has to do with you as much as the film itself. This is particularly galling when it’s a film that has received some significant critical acclaim. In the case of the 1969 French-language film Z, that acclaim came in the form of a Best Foreign Language Film win and a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars.
The film was directed by Greek-born director Costa-Gravas, and is a thinly-veiled satirical attack on the military dictatorship of his native Greece and how they handled — and orchestrated — the assassination of a left-wing political figure in 1963. Costa-Gravas makes no bones about the point he’s making in the film.
If I were grading on sheer chutzpah, it would get 5 stars easily.
The film features Yves Montand as the charismatic, intelligent leader of a left-wing political party trying to gain support and being shut down by the powers that be where ever they turn. When he is assassinated the night of a political rally, there is an attempt to quickly quieten the news and cover up the perpetrators, but the government is unable to dissuade a photojournalist (Jacques Perrin) interested only in truth and a magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) interested only in justice. What unfolds is dark and disturbing, and quite damning to the political party in power. It’s not hard at all to see how powerful this film would have been in 1969, playing to an audience of politically savvy adults for whom the events in Greece were a recent memory.
The problem for the film, however, is that it assumes that savvy and awareness. For a European news-watching adult, or many Americans, I’m sure it was the case in 1969, a relatively short six years after the events in question. But with the passage of time it’s a much more hazardous assumption. I was born ten years after this film was released. My high school education in history consisted of the history of the U.S. from the arrival of the Europeans to the present (for the day), and the history of Europe from William the Conqueror to World War II. (College courses added feudal Japan to my knowledge, and personal education added tribal history). I’ve never considered it a bad education, at least for someone who didn’t major in social sciences, but none of it covered 1960s Greece. What I know of the events in question I know solely from the film and from reading Wikipedia after watching it. This is not exactly something I would generally pass off as knowledge.
And so, since the film assumes a level of familiarity with the subject, I found myself rather lost initially. I didn’t know who these guys were supposed to represent, or exactly what they stood for. I could tell the military regime was corrupt, but I was left without an indication of why the opposition were the good guys, other than being the opposition. The best I could glean was that they were pacifists, and that like the existing regime they weren’t Communists, though they were suspected to be. The latter was the closest thing to a hint as to why they were perceived as such a strong threat to the existing regime. So with so many things where I had to try and figure out what the film expected me to already know, it took me a while to really get up to speed with the plot of the story.
Also hurting it was that aside from the plot, there wasn’t really anything to latch on to. The characters are such only in the loosest sense of the word; they represent real figures, but they aren’t given personalities (or even names) to match. Most of them are bland cardboard cutouts, with nothing to relate to. The most lively was Marcel Bozzuffi’s blue-collar assassin; among the characters the audience should be rooting for, there really wasn’t much there. Combined with the confusion from before, and the justifiably bleak tone of the film, Z was a fairly wearying experience to watch, and by the end of its two hours, I was ready for it to conclude.
Part of this, I’m sure some will say, is my own fault. After all, I’m the ignorant one. It’s a fair assertion. But when I’m evaluating whether a film is great — not just entertaining, but great in the sense of being a film worthy of awards and the “classic” designation — one of the criteria is that it has to be timeless. It has to be something that can still be related to years, even decades, after its release. Z still captures some elements of that; once the viewer gets up to speed, it’s hard not to find it chilling how much power the regime has. But its reliance on the assumption that the viewer already knows the pertinent details makes it difficult for a viewer under 70 (1963’s adults) to appreciate it without first receiving a particular history lesson. It was no doubt powerful in its day, but its assumptions rob it of the timelessness and independence of a great film.