Constantin Costa-Gavras' 1969 classic Z (Rialto Pictures), just rereleased in a snappy new 35 mm print for its 40th anniversary, is as bold, jagged, and modern as its one-letter title. No one, including its director, has ever made another film like it. A treatise on politics that's also a tightly woven pulp thriller, with nimble camerawork by Raoul Coutard (the great cinematographer of the French New Wave) and a propulsive, percussive score by Mikis Theodorakis (who composed the theme music for Zorba the Greek), Z makes political intelligence seem chicer than skinny neckties.
In an unnamed country—the relentless sunshine and zither-driven score suggest Greece, but everyone speaks French—the power is in the hands of a military dictatorship. An activist leader, Zei (Yves Montand), arrives from abroad to lead a peace rally, provoking a riot and an assassination. In the aftermath of this unrest, a young judge is appointed by the state to hear the assassins' case, with the assumption that he'll buckle under pressure from the regime to make Zei's death look like an accident. Instead, the judge (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, French '60s everyman par excellence) proves unexpectedly obstinate about finding out the truth. Meanwhile, the activist's widow (the incomparable Irene Papas) arrives from abroad to collect her husband's effects.
These days, movies earn the title of "political" simply by virtue of their subject matter. Z, which is based on real events that occurred in Greece in 1963, is political in the deeper sense: It attempts to think about politics, from the sick logic of fascism (in the opening scene, a junta leader compares the squelching of ideological "-isms" to the removal of mildew) to the awful ineluctability of mob violence. After the assassination, a debate among the activists about how to respond turns into a showdown between the radicals and the more law-abiding centrist faction. "Why don't you just call the Red Cross or the Human Rights Commission?" sneers one of the hard-liners, and the sarcasm in his voice tells us more about the realities of revolutionary politics than a semester's worth of poli-sci lectures.
The movie's last half-hour is a neat trick of narrative construction: As the judge interrogates witnesses to the assassination (or, in government-enforced parlance, "the day of the events"), we return in a series of subjective flashbacks to the event itself, pausing in the present for a killer car chase. Z combines the intellectual heft of revolution-themed films like The Battle of Algiers with the drop-dead cool of mod touchstones like Blow Out or Le Samouraï. (Overthrowing a dictatorship is so much hipper when you do it in black-framed glasses and narrow-lapel suits or, for the women, sleek pageboys and Jackie O shifts.) But Cold War setting notwithstanding, the movie's vision of paranoia, corruption, and moral compromise remains blisteringly relevant, seeming to foresee both Watergate and the Patriot Act. The penultimate scene, in which typewriters in close-up tap out the indictments of top junta officials, would go on to be quoted by the last shot of All the President's Men. But unlike that film, Z doesn't end on a triumphant note. In a coda, a narrator describes the military's brutal response to the indictments: a crackdown banning everything from miniskirts to free speech to the plays of Sophocles. The fascist strongmen of Z have at least one thing in common with Costa-Gavras: They know how frighteningly powerful political art can be.