Every semester, IU President Michael A. McRobbie programs a series of films based around a theme. This year, in honor of the Media School opening in Franklin Hall, his series is called “Reporting Conflict,” and it is about the power of the media. The last film in this year’s series is the 1969 political classic “Z,” directed by Greek filmmaker Costa-Gavras. I first saw this film when I was 18 years old thanks to Hulu’s streaming deal with the Criterion Collection. It hit me with all of the energy of a runaway train. It faded from my mind for two years, until I saw it again in preparation for this column. I was surprised at how little my perception of the film had changed. I am sure that, if I see this film for a third time when it plays at the IU Cinema on December 11th, my high opinion of it would remain unchanged.
I love now, as I did then, the irony that the real power of this lightning-quick film comes from its calmest character. He is only known as “The Examining Magistrate,” but I find his emotional journey to be the film’s most inspiring. Jean-Louis Trintignant gives an exceptional performance as this character that is a highlight in a career which has continually demonstrated his great versatility. Trintignant’s quiet acting is supported by the film’s visually stunning technical elements to provide a stirring portrait of how heroes can come from unexpected places.
“Z” takes place in an unnamed, French-speaking country. The right-wing chief of military police is trying to disrupt a speech that a prominent left-wing political figure, called The Doctor, is going to give. Meanwhile, members of the Doctor’s staff learn that there may be an attempt on his life. Their fears come true, as the Doctor is assaulted after his speech. The Examining Magistrate is then put in charge of conducting an inquest into the Doctor’s death.
The Examining Magistrate makes his first appearance 10 minutes into the film. He goes to greet a man that the Doctor’s staff is trying to warn about the upcoming assassination. To the idealistic members of the Doctor’s staff, he seems like just another bureaucrat. Indeed, with his suit and glasses he looks like a cog in a machine that may aid in a cover-up about the real facts of the Doctor’s assault. But looks can be deceiving, as Trintignant will prove.
The Examining Magistrate is above all a professional, just like Trintignant was in real life. At this point in his career, the 39 year-old actor had been in over 40 films. They ranged from epic recreations of historical battles to sex farces. He had even given an entirely silent performance in the spaghetti western “The Great Silence.” It takes an actor with a great dedication to his craft to bring such diverse roles to life. This dedication is somewhat similar to the Examining Magistrate’s commitment to the ideal of justice.
Trintignant conveys this devotion through the smallest of gestures. A quick turn of his head can show displeasure with a colleague’s racism. A cold stare can show the initial stirrings of his suspicion about the chief of military police. Whenever he learns something new that points to a cover-up, he briefly looks confused because of what members of the military police had previously told him. But instead of throwing his head in the sand and believing his party’s lies, he simply accepts the new information as fact and moves along. We never learn the Examining Magistrate’s name, and barely anything about his background or personal life, but Trintignant’s microscopic attention to detail makes him a rich character and conveys a wealth of information about his character’s politics.
The Examining Magistrate’s brand of political action is almost apolitical, which stands in contrast to that practiced by the Doctor and his staff members. He is not motivated by loyalty to a candidate or a political party, but to do the right thing. At a certain point, his love of justice and his fidelity to the legal process outweigh his loyalty to his party. In an election year that has seen virulently anti-establishment views espoused, it’s comforting to see a film about an honest government figure who does good because it is the right thing to do, and not for personal gain.
His intellectual journey is best conveyed through a simple word. At first, as a loyal servant of the state, he insists on referring to what happened to the Doctor as an “accident” despite the possibility of foul play. His adherence to impartiality, however, gives way under the weight of the facts he accumulates. The fact that he eventually refers to it as a “murder” is so significant that the filmmakers zoom in on his shocked assistant’s face as he asks him if it is OK to type “murder.”
The visual style of “Z” is excellent in its bluntness and economical approach to creating a mood. A recurring stylistic trait is that the camera will track forward into a person’s face as he or she says an important line. This makes what they are saying more important, such as when the Examining Magistrate first says the attack on the Doctor was premeditated.
I once had a teacher who said that he does not like it when a film has unnamed characters. He felt that it makes their personalities less defined. He makes a good point, but I personally think that it’s rather effective that “Z” never gives The Examining Magistrate a name. It makes his actions and devotion to fairness his most prominent characteristics, as opposed to tertiary details like his name, favorite foods, or favorite music. In a way, it turns him into a model of goodness. The example he sets shows that anyone, no matter his or her role in society, can fight for what is right if they keep an open mind and are devoted to justice. The last lines of the movie tell the audience that, in Ancient Greek, the letter Z means “he lives.” While it is used as a protest slogan in the film to refer to the Doctor, I’d like to think it refers to The Examining Magistrate too. People with his type of courage make it easier to live.
The President’s Choice: Reporting Conflict Film Series, programmed by IU President Michael A. McRobbie, concludes on December 11, 2016 with a 6:30 p.m. screening of Costa-Gavras’ 1969 political thriller Z. President McRobbie introduced the series on October 9, 2016 prior to the screening of Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously. The transcript of his remarks appeared in A Place For Film on November 12, 2016.
Jesse Pasternack is a junior at Indiana University and the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He writes about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse is a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. He has directed two short films.