The film presents a (barely) fictionalized account of the events surrounding the assassination of democratic Greek politician Gregoris Lambrakis in 1963. With its satirical view of Greek politics, its dark sense of humor, and its chilling ending, the film captures a sense of outrage about the military dictatorship that ruled Greece at the time.
The film stars Jean-Louis Trintignant as the investigating magistrate (Christos Sartzetakis, later to be Greece's President of the Republic). Although they are given star billing because of their international reputation, Yves Montand and Irene Papas, are on-screen for a very short time compared to the other principals. Jacques Perrin, who co-produced, plays a key role.
The location of the action is never expressly stated, but there are many hints (e.g. a Greek typewriter, Greek beers, Greek music, a portrait of King Paul) indicating that it is Greece in the early 1960s. Filming took place primarily in Algiers.
In the opening credits, there is a counter-disclaimer which reads (translated from French): "Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is DELIBERATE."
The story begins with the leader of the security police of a right-wing military-dominated government describing the government's program to combat leftism, using the metaphors of "a mildew of the mind", an infiltration of "isms", or "spots on the sun".
The scene shifts to preparations for the Deputy (Montand) to arrive to give a speech at a rally of the opposition faction. After giving his speech, the Deputy is run down by a delivery truck and suffers a fatal brain injury. The examining magistrate (Trintignant), with the assistance of the photojournalist (Perrin) uncovers sufficient evidence to indict not only the two right-wing militants who committed the murder, but also four high-ranking military police officers. The action of the film concludes with one of the Deputy's associates rushing to see the Deputy's widow (Papas) to give her the surprising news.
Instead of the expected positive outcome, however, the prosecutor is mysteriously removed from the case, key witnesses die under suspicious circumstances, the assassins, though convicted of murder, receive (relatively) short sentences, the officers receive only administrative reprimands, the Deputy's close associates die or are deported, and the photojournalist is sent to prison for disclosing official documents.
As the closing credits roll, instead of listing the cast and crew, the filmmakers list the things banned by the junta. They include: peace movements, strikes, labor unions, long hair on men, The Beatles, other modern and popular music, Sophocles, Leo Tolstoy, Aeschylus, writing that Socrates was homosexual, Eugene Ionesco, Jean-Paul Sartre, Anton Chekhov, Mark Twain, Samuel Beckett, the bar association, sociology, international encyclopedias, free press, new math. Also banned is the letter Z, which has been scrawled on the sidewalk as the film's final image, as a symbolic reminder that "the spirit of resistance lives" (zei = "he lives").
Z was nominated for many top awards, including an Oscar for Best Picture and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Picture, and was named best film by the New York Film Critics Circle Awards and National Society of Film Critics Awards. The film was also nominated for a Golden Palm award at the Cannes film festival. It won the 'Prix du Jury' (Jury Prize) at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival and Jean-Louis Trintignant also won the 'Prix d'interprétation masculine' (Best Male Actor) award for his performance in the film. It won the Oscar awards in the editing and foreign film categories. The soundtrack, by Mikis Theodorakis, was also a hit.