Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Yves Montand, Irene Papas, Jacques Perrin.
Costa-Gavras* was one of the most political of all directors. He managed to combine a very strong point of view -- liberal but with a strong mistrust of communism -- into some very successful political films. Z was one of his biggest and better-known films.
The subject matter was highly political when it came out. Costa-Gavras was born in Greece, and in 1969, the country was ruled by a repressive right-wing military dictatorship. Indeed, the film is based upon actual events of the time -- with a disguise so thin that no one in Greece would fail to see through it.
In the film, we see an unnamed country where a Deputy of their legislature (Yves Montand) wants to give a speed on nuclear disarmament. But the right-wing forces don't want it and suddenly obstacles appear. He is forced to go to another venue when the original one mysteriously becomes unavailable. And as he walks across the street after his speech, a small truck somehow manages to get through the police cordon and the Deputy is hit. He dies soon afterward.
The authorities say it was a hit-and-run driver, but the hospital** reports that the injuries aren't consistent. An uproar occurs, and the government is forced to investigate. An Examining Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is named. He, at first, starts examining the evidence objectively, and slowly reveals evidence of a political cover-up.
The movie plays as a taut thriller as the Examining Magistrate digs at the evidence.*** Trintignant is terrific as a man who is only interested in the truth -- no matter where it leads. Jacques Perrin is also memorable as the photojournalist who pushes the investigation.
But the story does not have an entirely happy ending; dictatorships don't take lightly having their members being arrested. The final credits give a list of things that were currently banned in Greece: the Peace Movement, the Beatles, Aeschylus, Mark Twain, and many others, including the letter "Z," which referred to the assassination, meaning, "He is alive."
The film was a major hit of the time, winning a bunch of awards including an Oscar for Best Foreign Film (and a nomination for Best Picture). Costa-Gavras went on to other political films like The Confession and Missing.
Nowadays, the movie is still shown in film classes, and in trivia contests (tied for shortest title ever with M and the shortest title to be nominated for an Oscar). But since it's not in English, audiences are not familiar with it. Perhaps they think it's too political to be entertaining, but they couldn't be more wrong.
*He didn't generally use his first name professionally. Or, rather, Costa-Gavras was his nickname with a hyphen in it.
**In a telling scene, right after the Deputy his hit, an ambulance appears out of nowhere and tries to take him to a hospital across town, but they are forced to take him to one that is nearer -- and better.
***Though by today's standards, the dictatorship is pretty unsophisticated in its plotting.