The film stars Jean-Louis Trintignant as the investigating magistrate (an analogue of Christos Sartzetakis who later served as president of Greece from 1985 to 1990). International stars Yves Montand and Irene Papas also appear, but despite their star billing have very little screen time. Jacques Perrin, who co-produced, plays a key role as a photojournalist. The film's title refers to a popular Greek protest slogan (Greek: Ζει, IPA: [ˈzi]) meaning "he lives," in reference to Lambrakis.
The film had a total of 3,952,913 admissions in France and was the 4th highest grossing film of the year. It was also the 12th highest grossing film of 1969 in the U.S. Z is also the first film—and one of the few—to be nominated for both the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture.
The story begins with the closing moments of a rather dull government lecture and slide show on agricultural policy, after which the leader of the security police of a right-wing military-dominated government (Dux) takes over the podium for an impassioned speech describing the government's program to combat leftism, using the metaphors of "a mildew of the mind", an infiltration of "isms", or "sunspots". At the time (1969), it was obvious that these high ranked police bosses were heavily inspired by the neighboring country Spain, and Franco's outspoken Fascism there.
The scene shifts to preparations for a rally of the opposition faction where the pacifist Deputy (Montand) is to give a speech advocating nuclear disarmament. It is obvious that there have been attempts to prevent the speech’s delivery by the government. The venue has been changed to a much smaller hall, logistical problems have appeared out of nowhere, and the people handing out leaflets about the change of venue are attacked by thugs under the command of the police. On his way to the venue, the Deputy is hit on the head by right-wing anticommunist thugs (some sponsored by the government) but carries on with his sharp speech. As the Deputy crosses the street from the hall after giving his speech, a delivery truck speeds past him and a man on the open truck bed strikes him down with a club. The injury eventually proves fatal, and by that time it is already clear to the viewer that the police have manipulated witnesses to force the conclusion that the victim was simply run over by a drunk driver.
However, they do not control the hospital, where the autopsy disproves their interpretation. The examining magistrate (Trintignant), with the assistance of a photojournalist (Perrin), now uncovers sufficient evidence to indict not only the two right-wing militants who committed the murder, but also four high-ranking military police officers. The action of the film concludes with one of the Deputy's associates rushing to see the Deputy's widow (Papas) to give her the surprising news of the officers' indictments. The widow looks distressed, appearing not to believe things will change for the better.
An epilogue provides a synopsis of the subsequent turns of events. Instead of the expected positive outcome, the prosecutor is mysteriously removed from the case, several key witnesses die under suspicious circumstances, the assassins receive (relatively) short sentences, the officers receive only administrative reprimands, the Deputy's close associates die or are deported, and the photojournalist is sent to prison for disclosing official documents. The heads of the government resign after public disapproval, but before elections are carried out, a Coup d'etat occurs and the military seize all the power. They ban modern art and popular art in its many features, such as popular music and avant-garde novelists, as well as modern mathematics, classic and modern philosophers, and the use of the term "Z" (Greek: zíta, which was used by protesters against the former government), which referred to The Deputy and means: "He lives".
The soundtrack, by Mikis Theodorakis, was also a record hit. The Greek junta had placed the composer under house arrest but he was able to give his approval to Costa-Gavras for the use of existing musical pieces.
The film features, but does not credit, Pierre Henry's contemporary hit song, "Psyché Rock". The soundtrack as released on LP and CD replaces Henry's song with a similar track written by Theodorakis named "Café Rock."
- Main Title (Antonis) from the "Mauthausen Trilogy" of Mikis Theodorakis
- The Smiling Youth
- The Chase-The Smiling Youth
- Murmur of the Heart
- Cafe Rock
- Arrival of Helen-The Smiling Youth
- The Smiling Youth (Bouzouki Version)
- The Smiling Youth
- Who’s Not Talking About Easter
- Finale-The Smiling Youth
- Murmur of the Heart
- In This Town
"The Happy Youth" and "Who’s Not Talking About Easter" were among the poems adapted from Brendan Behan's play The Hostage by Theodorakis in 1962. By referring to the Irish struggle against British rule rather than Greek realities, they offered a way to circumvent censorship in Greece and condemn Greece's post-war right-wing establishment. "The Smiling Youth" (το γελαστό παιδί) was also one of the nicknames of Lambrakis.
The film earned North American rentals of $6,750,000 in 1970.
At the time of release, Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, who named Z the best film of 1969, liked the screenplay and its message, and wrote, "[Z] is a film of our time. It is about how even moral victories are corrupted. It will make you weep and will make you angry. It will tear your guts out...When the Army junta staged its coup in 1967, the right-wing generals and the police chief were cleared of all charges and 'rehabilitated.' Those responsible for unmasking the assassination now became political criminals. These would seem to be completely political events, but the young director Costa-Gavras has told them in a style that is almost unbearably exciting. Z is at the same time a political cry of rage and a brilliant suspense thriller. It even ends in a chase: Not through the streets but through a maze of facts, alibis and official corruption."
In 2006, James Berardinelli wrote, "Z was the third feature film from Greek-born Costa-Gavras, but it is the movie that captured him to the world's attention, winning a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It introduced the director's signature approach of combining overt political messages with edge-of-the-seat tension." Jonathan Richards wrote in 2009, "It's hard to overstate the impact that this Oscar-winning procedural thriller had in 1969, on a world roiling in political activism, repression, and discord. In the U.S., the Vietnam War was on the front burner, the populace was passionately engaged, and the police riots outside the '68 Chicago Democratic Convention and the murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton were raw wounds. With this stylish, intense indictment of the assassination of a leftist political leader by a right wing government cabal in his native Greece, director Costa-Gavras struck a nerve that resonated here and around the globe."
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 95% "fresh" score based on 39 reviews, with an average rating of 8.2/10. The site's consensus states: "Powerfully effective, this anti-fascist political thriller stands out as both high-conscience melodrama and high-tempo action movie."
The film was selected to be screened in the Cannes Classics section of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.Wins
1969 Cannes Film Festival: Best Actor, Jean-Louis Trintignant; Jury Prize, Costa-Gavras, Unanimously.
New York Film Critics Circle Awards: NYFCC Award, Best Director, Costa-Gavras; Best Film; 1969.
Academy Awards: Best Film Editing, Françoise Bonnot; Best Foreign Language Film, Algeria; 1970. Note: It was the first film to be nominated for Academy Awards both for Best Foreign Language Film and for Best Picture.
Golden Globes: Golden Globe, Best Foreign-Language Foreign Film, Algeria; 1970.
British Academy of Film and Television Arts: Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music, Mikis Theodorakis; 1970.
Edgar Award: Edgar, Best Motion Picture, Jorge Semprún and Costa-Gavras; 1970.
National Society of Film Critics Awards, USA: NSFC Award Best Film; 1970.
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards 1970: Circle Awards: KCFCC Award, Best Foreign Film; 1971.
Cannes Film Festival: Golden Palm, Costa-Gavras, 1969.
Academy Awards: Oscar, Best Director, Costa-Gavras; Best Picture, Jacques Perrin and Ahmed Rachedi; Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Jorge Semprún and Costa-Gavras; 1970.
British Academy of Film and Television Arts: BAFTA Film Award, Best Film; Best Film Editing, Françoise Bonnot; Best Screenplay, Costa-Gavras and Jorge Semprún; UN Award; 1970.
Directors Guild of America, USA: DGA Award, Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, Costa-Gavras; 1970.