Sometimes what the world needs is a lawyer who believes in the law. That’s my take on Costa-Gravas’ gripping legal thriller “Z” which tells in fictional terms events that actually took place in Greece in the 1960’s.
The setting is unfortunately not uncommon. A left-wing democratic politician schedules a rally to denounce the military-dominated right wing government of the unnamed country. The police and security officials see him as a cancer on the national body politic that must be neutralized, if not eliminated. They first pressure landlords not to lease him a hall, and when he decides to hold his meeting in a public square, coordinate with right wing thugs to have him attacked. Their plan appears to succeed. The leader is hit by a speeding car as he enters the square and soon dies from his injuries.
The police then orchestrate an investigation that they are confident will conclude that death was a routine traffic fatality. They appoint a naïve young conservative examining magistrate (a position somewhere between a prosecutor and a judge) to head the investigation confident that he will ratify their conclusions. But the magistrate ( Jean-Louis Trintignant) takes his job seriously and decides to follow the facts wherever they lead.
Like the film poster says, it’s a terrific thriller. For me much of the thrill came from watching the magistrate carefully wade through all the lies to determine the truth at the same time he wards off interference from his superiors. We see how mundane legal procedure can be an engine of truth. His final decision is to indict the security officials themselves.
The film (being true to the Greek story) has a sad coda. Good does not defeat evil. A military coup results in the magistrate’s dismissal and an end to the prosecution. But happily this turned out to be a case where history rewrote fiction. A few years after the film’s release—and perhaps in part because of its exposure of the injustice to a worldwide audience– the military junta was itself overthrown and democratic elections were held. The magistrate who was the model for the Trintignant character was elected president of Greece.