Z

In repertory at Film Forum through March 31.

Z is forty years old, but it could have been made yesterday, assuming the filmmakers could acquire financing for their bitingly leftist, disillusioned, yet gripping thriller. The direction—briskly paced and versatile, shifting between documentary-like realism and more subjective flashbacks and ramping up toward its climax with rhythmic drive—feels effortlessly contemporary. But even more than the aesthetics, the subject matter of Z resonates all too well with the present day.

Based on a novel that dramatizes the 1963 assassination of a Greek anti-war leader, the movie could have relied simply on paranoia and knee-jerk cynicism to fuel suspense, but it’s smarter and more thoughtful than that. We see, from the outset, who kills the Deputy—there’s no mystery there—so the tension comes from the way the film gradually pulls back to reveal the infinitely more interesting hows and whys and then whats. With blistering insights into the psychology of cover-ups, the manipulation of political foot soldiers, the dangers and limitations of ideology, and the moral compromises of political action on both left and right, Z easily transcends the 1960s. It’s not a museum piece; it’s timeless.

The movie opens at a closed-door government meeting on agricultural policy that shifts, jarringly, into a small right-wing rally when the leader of the secret police follows the horticulturist and coldly compares the country’s mildew infestation to left-wing ideas—and their proponents—that must also be eradicated. From there, the movie jumps around, visiting players of varying ranks and locations on the political spectrum. When an anti-war leader (Yves Montand) dies after an “incident” following a mass assembly, the police move quickly to have that incident deemed an accident, but the magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) appointed to rubber-stamp their findings is more independent-minded than they anticipated, and his investigation, building on the work of an enterprising young photojournalist (Jacques Perrin), uncovers not a drunken accident but a true conspiracy.

Trintignant has the best role, and he makes the most of it, giving the magistrate a steely gaze and a shrewd smile. (The man might be a government bureaucrat, but he projects an almost Steve McQueen–like aura of cool.) The intriguing thing about the character, though, is that he clearly doesn’t share the activists’ political sensibilities. He doesn’t trust them, and he’s not eager to see their fallen leader labeled a martyr. But the government’s explanation doesn’t hold water, and his own sense of justice and professionalism require him to pursue the truth. The magistrate’s principles are exemplary—even more than the murdered Deputy, he is the hero of the film—but Trintignant keeps him grounded by letting traces of smugness seep into his questions and posture. The character is principled, yes, but prideful, too. He bristles at the attempts to intimidate him, clearly taking personal offense, and that affront gives his inquiry an extra edge.

That kind of nuance is characteristic of Z. The scene in which members of the fractured anti-war party argue about how to spin the killing of their beloved leader is a multi-faceted gem, a clear-eyed look at how the demands of public life can overwhelm private grief. The movie also finds subtle shades in the portrait of the getaway driver, a simple, debt-ridden man who never completely understands how his distrust of “elites” has allowed the truly powerful to manipulate him.

Indeed, for all its considerable anger, Z rarely allows that anger to flatten the complexity of real life into two black-and-white dimensions, even though director Costa-Gavras, who also had a hand in the screenplay, definitely stands with the activists. (The film’s remarkable non-disclaimer boldly declares that “any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is DELIBERATE.”) The movie’s artistry also prevents it from devolving into crude agitprop. In short, Z is an excellent example of how to make a political film with a strong point of view without turning it into a polemic—which makes it a better thriller but also gives it, however paradoxically, a stronger message: If you can make a right-wing magistrate the hero of your left-wing movie, you underline just how corrupt and extreme the rest of the right wing is. Clever.