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Rewatching Constantin Costa-Gavras’s landmark thriller Z was chilling. Not because of the filmmaking issues it raises but because it forcefully demonstrates the fragility of the rule of law and democratic process. Even the title (the ancient Greek letter for “He lives,” which became the rallying cry for opponents to the dictatorship that followed the depicted events) is grimly ironic today, as the letter “Z” has been appropriated by people who make the movie’s villains look like Boy Scouts. Thus, fifty years after its release, the film is as gripping as ever.

A thinly veiled reenactment of the assassination of left-wing politician Grigoris Lambrakis, Z has always been controversial because it combines loaded politics with razor sharp cinematic drive. The Lambrakis surrogate, like most of the characters, is never named. Appearing only briefly, he is played by a star (Yves Montand) to make him sympathetic immediately. Characterized as a peace-loving martyr, he is murdered by corrupt officials. The suspense comes from the efforts of a host of characters, particularly Jean-Louis Trintignant’s incorruptible prosecutor, to reveal the truth about the assassination.

The resulting political melodrama has inspired a host of imitators, including All the President’s Men. If the black and white moral distinctions raise skeptical questions, Costa-Gavras’s subsequent career proves that Z is a work of conviction, not just blazingly effective manipulation. Still, the fact that so many films have “borrowed” Z’s fast cutting, restless camerawork and abrasively charged music to questionable ends demonstrates that the heart-pounding razzle-dazzle could be used for any purpose, including politics diametrically opposed to the film’s. 

If from the first frame Z is unabashedly on the side of Montand’s sympathizers, recognizing that prejudice is tough when caught in the breathlessly forward-charging action. The spectrum of political opinion is split across characters, each with their own motivations, but the best that can be said for any of the villains is that one of the murderers, Vago (Marcel Bozzuffi) is such a wildly, ecstatically evil monster that he fascinates even as he repels. Conversely, the closest the filmmakers come to criticizing any of the good guys is Charles Denner’s hot-head lawyer Manuel. Too ready to resort to violence, there are times when his attitudes nonetheless seem right

Trintignant is the key figure, for while he too has limited screen time, his dogged determination creates a steady center for the investigation and our sympathies. If he seems at first to be a nonentity, with hints that his background would put him on the wrong side, his search for the truth outweighs any prejudices he may have. That description has an eerily familiar ring in our own political moment, for Z reminds us that the rule of law can work only if those who profess to believe in it have the strength of character to defend it. It is difficult to criticize the film’s attitudes when so much is at stake.