French resistance: A Profile of Costa Gavras

Costa-Gavras Maya Jaggi in the Guardian:

This year marks the 40th anniversary of his landmark feature Z (1969), about an incorruptible judge investigating the killing at a peace demo of a reformist politician, played by Yves Montand. With democracy disappearing in a fog of dirty tricks, conspiracy and cover-up, Z was an indictment of the US-backed coup in Greece, and was banned there under the military junta of 1967-74. With dark humour, a faux-documentary style and a soundtrack by Mikos Theodorakis – then under house arrest – it made Gavras's name as master of a genre that married the pace and suspense of the action thriller with political critique, and it won an Oscar for best foreign-language film. Z has recently begun an anniversary tour with a screening in New York in a new 35mm print.

Lured to Hollywood in the 80s, Gavras has also made movies in English. Missing (1982), which won an Oscar for best screenplay adaptation, probed another US-backed coup, this time in Chile in 1973. As a conservative American (played by Jack Lemmon) searches for his disappeared son, the journalist Charles Horman, he is confronted by the depth of his country's collusion in Pinochet's coup. (Gavras and Universal Studios successfully fought a libel suit filed by a former US ambassador to Chile during the coup.) Amen (2003) proved equally controversial, investigating as it did the silence or complicity of the Catholic church and the allied powers in the Holocaust.

Yet Gavras doesn't march behind the banner of political cinema. All cinema is political, he says, even action movies showing “heroes saving the Earth only with a gun”. Nor is he bound by the thriller. “Every story has its own style, which I try to find.” His films are often based on fact (“Any similarity to persons or events is deliberate”, Z announced). His interest is in the “pyramid of power”, and in relationships destroyed by global politics, ideologies and beliefs. Yet alongside silent abuses of authority are those who resist – stubborn witnesses, upright judges, dissenting consciences. He films lone figures dwarfed by opulent buildings, or pacing the indifferent corridors of bureaucracy. For Gavras, “resistance is the most important thing”.