The Classic Film Club
With Richard Kuipers
Series 01 Episode 05
Foreign Language Classics
The classic films revisited and re-rated...as seen through today’s eyes.
8 1/2 (1963)
A harried movie director retreats into his memories and fantasies.
Director - Federico Fellini
Writers - Federico FelliniEnnio FlaianoTullio Pinelli
Stars - Marcello MastroianniAnouk AiméeClaudia Cardinale - (IMDb)
The public murder of a prominent politician and doctor amid a violent demonstration is covered up by military and government officials. A tenacious magistrate is determined not to let them get away with it.
Director - Costa-Gavras
Writers - Vasilis VasilikosJorge SemprúnCosta-Gavras
Stars - Yves MontandIrene PapasJean-Louis Trintignant (IMDb)
Giallo (Italian pronunciation: [ˈdʒallo]; plural gialli) is the Italian term designating mystery fiction and thrillers. The word giallo is Italian for yellow. The term derives from a series of cheap paperback mystery and crime thriller novels with yellow covers that were popular in Italy.
In the context of 20th-century literature and film, especially among English speakers and non-Italians in general, giallo refers specifically to a particular Italian thriller-horror genre that has mystery or detective elements and often contains slasher, crime fiction, psychological thriller, psychological horror, sexploitation, and, less frequently, supernatural horror elements.
Federico Fellini, Cavaliere di Gran Croce OMRI (Italian: [fedeˈriːko felˈliːni]; 20 January 1920 – 31 October 1993) was an Italian film director and screenwriter known for his distinctive style, which blends fantasy and baroque images with earthiness. He is recognized as one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers of all time. His films have ranked highly in critical polls such as that of Cahiers du cinéma and Sight & Sound, which lists his 1963 film 8 1⁄2 as the 10th-greatest film.
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Foreign Film Special
Hello and welcome to the classic film club. Richard Kuipers here with you. I’m a critic for the international trade paper Variety, film festival curator and lifelong movie nerd. Thanks to everyone for listening throughout 2020, it’s great to be back in 2021 with lots of great things in store for this year. This podcast is dedicated to taking a fresh look at movie classics to see how well they’ve stood the test of time. When we look at films that were hailed as classics 40, 60 even 90 years ago which ones still merit such lofty status and how many have lost that lustre when we look at them through the cultural, social and political lens of today? Some like CITIZEN KANE are impervious to time – it’s just as relevant and powerful as it was in 1941. Others, like GONE WITH THE WIND – which I looked at on the previous CLASSIC FILM CLUB instalment – haven’t fared so well. It’s still a great movie-making achievement but for me its portrayal of Black American characters is so “troublesome” to put it kindly, that its reputation is diminished I can’t consider it to be a true movie classic.
In this chapter of the CLASSIC FILM CLUB I’m turning my attention to movies that have won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film – it’ll bring us into contact with giants of cinema including Federico Fellini, the Italian maestro who brought us LA STRADA, LA DOLCE VITA, SATYRICON, CITY OF WOMEN and so many other great works. It also gives us a chance to focus on lesser-known but vitally important figures such as Greek director Konstantinos Gavras, better known as Costa-Gavras, who made a series of exceptional political dramas including STATE OF SIEGE, THE CONFESSION and MISSING starring Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon. Costa-Gavtas is a name that deserves to be better known and to support that cause I’ll take a look at arguably his best film “Z” from 1970, one of very few features ever to be nominated for Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film in the same year.
After such appalling events at the end of the previous US president’s term Z is even more relevant and urgent now, 51 years on. That’s a little later in the show, along with my usual trip to the trash and treasure vault, where I can feel some juicy European exploitation titles coming on ….
But first, a little background on the territory we’re about to enter. The Oscar category of Best Foreign Language Film is now known as Best International Feature – an overdue change made in 2019 when the Academy finally realized that “foreign” is an out-dated term when film finance and production has become increasingly international not just in recent years but for about the past 30 years. It’s still just one award but at least it recognizes changes in the industry. The decision seemed to arrive right on cue, with South Korean production PARASITE winning best picture, director, screenplay and International Feature at the 2020 Oscars.
Between 1929 – the year of the first Academy awards ceremony – and 1946 there wasn’t even a category for Foreign language films. Between 1947 and 1955 an Honorary Oscar was presented, except in 1953 when no award was given. Initially this category had no nominees; just a winner announced on the night and the award going to the producing country rather than the producers and/or the director. Just how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences arrived at the choice of just one film is a question that has no clear answer, though I’m sure it’s buried somewhere in the Academy’s tightly held archives. Things changed in 2014, with the director’s name engraved alongside the country, with he or she also allowed to keep the statuette. The first film to receive the gong was SHOESHINE by Italian director Vittorio de Sica. He also won for BICYCLE THIEVES in 1949 and THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS in 1971. As of 2020 Italy leads the honour roll with 14 wins, followed by France on 12 and Spain with four. Every country is eligible to submit one film each year for consideration. From that initial long list a shortlist is made by the Foreign Language Film Award Committee and from there the final Five nominees are announced. Australia has submitted 13 films over the years, the first of which was FLOATING LIFE (1996), a wonderful family drama directed by Clara Law and spoken in Cantonese, English and German. Others include Warwick Thornton’s magnificent SAMSON AND DELILAH (2009) spoken primarily in Walpiri, and BOUYANCY (2019), a powerful story about human slavery directed by Rodd Rathjen in Thai and Khmer language. One Australian film – a co-production with Vanuatu - did make the final list of Oscar nominees in 2016 – TANNA, co-directed by Bentley Dean and Martin Butler. It’s a beautiful love story filmed in Vanuatu in Nauvhal language. It still seems incredible that in 92 years of the Academy Awards only one foreign language film – PARASITE – has also won the Oscar for Best Picture. That’s an English-language bias of a mere 98.3 per cent.
I wanted to dive into non-English language cinema for any number of reasons but the one that really guided me was having some time over the New Year break to think about the foreign language films I saw when I was a kid, in late primary school and into high school, when cinema was becoming such a big part of my life. So often the first real impression I had of places, cultures, politics and people outside the UK and USA - which we all grew up watching on TV and cinema - was in a theatre witnessing a movie with subtitles. It was like a door being opened, and I learned so much from what I’d seen directly on the screen and by turning to books to discover more about those stories. Films like Fassbinder’s THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN (1979) about a widow making her way in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat in World War Two; STALKER (1979) by Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky, a mesmerising sci-fi mystery with strong parallels to THE WIZARD OF OZ, yes, THE WIZARD OF OZ; I saw Hungary from the turn of the 20th century to the outbreak of World War Two in Miklos Jansco’s HUNGARIAN RHAPSODY (1979); I witnessed a Vietnamese refugee trapped in a Hong Kong detention camp in Ann Hui’s THE STORY OF WOO VIET (1981). And I can never forget the lives of Sao Paulo street kids depicted in Hector Babenco’s masterpiece PIXOTE (1980).
One of the good things to come out of the Coronavirus time we’re still experiencing is the amount of foreign language material that’s been watched on streaming services such as STAN and NETFLIX. The numbers are staggering and what this has lead to is a huge rise in the number of non-English language productions being commissioned by these services. It shows that audiences are so much more willing to watch subtitled material than ever before. As someone who spent many years working at SBS and promoting foreign-language movies this is especially great news and we’re all going to be much richer for it.
So, let’s get things going now with a trip back to Italy in 1963 in Federico Fellini’s 8½. The title refers to the number of films Fellini had made up to that point. Six features directed solo, including Oscar nominees LA STRADA (1954), LA DOLCE VITA (1960) and I VITELLONI, which was made in 1953 and nominated in the 1958 Academy Awards – such was the lag time from Italian release to US release. Imagine that now, a five year wait to play in overseas markets! Fellini also co-directed his first feature VARIETY LIGHTS (1950) with Alberto Lattuada and contributed to the omnibus films LOVE IN THE CITY (1953) and BOCCACIO ’70 (1960). Collectively they add up two and a half films making a total of eight and a half by the time he embarked on this, the film I consider to be his masterpiece of masterpieces.
Life imitates art imitates life in 8 ½. The story centres on Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), a film director about to start shooting an ambitious science-fiction movie. But as the script is being finalized and casting is underway Guido loses his artistic inspiration and his personal life is in disarray. Suddenly he has no idea what he is doing or how he is supposed to do it. That’s the starting point for a mesmerising, semi-surreal journey into the mind of a troubled artist and the mechanics of filmmaking. The basic plot was drawn directly from Fellini’s personal experience. In 1960 he developed an idea about a professional man of unspecified occupation who’s lost his way and spends two weeks rediscovering himself. Two years later, with 8 ½ about to start shooting Fellini had a major creative block and felt that he’d lost his film. He could no longer remember what was at the heart of his story. Calling together his crew and cast Fellini was about to announce the abandonment of production when he was suddenly overcome by shame. In that exact moment he found the inspiration that had deserted him. The professional man in his story would now be a film director and his experiences and feelings would be based directly on what Fellini was going through. This may sound like an apocryphal tale but throughout his career Fellini often worked with unfinished scripts and worked out major plot points and themes as shooting progressed. I think there is every reason to believe this is exactly what happened in the case of 8 ½, which began production under the working title of The Beautiful Confusion.
We first meet Guido in a traffic jam in a tunnel – it’s one of those chaotic traffic jams that Italian cinema does so well. Smoke is entering his car, his doors are locked and he’s frantically trying to escape. In the midst of this we see images and freeze frames of vehicles and people surrounding him: a lecherous old man stroking the arm of a glamorous young woman in evening dress, the arms of passengers in a crowded bus flopping out of windows with their faces staring at Guido. Suddenly he escapes through the car’s roof and floats above the traffic, up into the clouds and above a beach, where his foot is connected by rope to a man below. He’s like a kite, and with one pull of the rope he plummets into the ocean below.
This fantastic opening tells us so much about Guido: he’s trapped and tormented by something while striving to float above it all and reach lofty heights. For the next eight and a half minutes – Exactly 81/2 minutes, I know because I timed it – Guido wanders through a very strange landscape that resembles a health spa. A doctor talks about the benefits of Holy Water while nuns and everyday people form queues. The soundtrack plays The Ride of the Valkyries – that rousing piece of music by Wagner immortalized in APOCALYPSE NOW. Finally, concrete information about our man. He is indeed a filmmaker under pressure from his producer. To help get over his creative block Guido has hired a film critic, Daumier (Jean Rougoule), to bounce ideas off and get feedback. Some of Guido’s ideas come from childhood memories, which play out in flashbacks that blend seamlessly into the present-time sequences. Like thought bubbles that suddenly spring to life we see Guido as a child, staying at his grandmother’s house and getting into trouble at his Catholic school after dancing on a beach with a sex worker played by the totally amazing Eddra Gale. An American singer who was performing in Rome when spotted by Fellini and cast in her first acting role, Gale has only has a few minutes of screen time but makes such an impression you’ll never forget her. This was just about it for Eddra Gale, she had tiny roles in GIDGET GOES TO ROME (1963), THE GRADUATE (1967) and ALEX AND THE GYPSY (1976), but her star shines very, very brightly here. Back to Guido and his autobiographical ideas for his troublesome screenplay. Daumier the script doctor gives a withering response, telling Guido that his film has “A lack of central issue and philosophical stance” and it amounts to “a chain of gratuitous episodes.” Guido’s producer, Connochia (Mario Connochia) also has his doubts and says “what if it’s the end of a bluffer who ran out of talent?”. If Fellini didn’t have such a grasp on his material here, and without that surreal and sensational opening sequence that grounds the tale in an emotional reality, you might agree with Daumier and Connochia about the film itself. Deliberately flirting with pretension and self-indulgence as he did for much of his career Fellini instead turns these memories of his own childhood, and his own fears of failure into a dazzling essay on the very nature of creativity and imagination.
As we meet Guido he’s a celebrated artist surrounded by people who hang on his every move and whose livelihoods depend on his creativity. But he’s also like a lost child trying to find his way home. Marcello Mastroianni – without doubt Italy’s biggest film star of all time - is masterful in the main role. Mastroianni shot to fame as disillusioned tabloid hack Marcello Rubini in Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA. He reunited with the master for CITY OF WOMEN (1980) and GINGER AND FRED (1986) but this is his greatest role for Fellini or anyone else. In Mastroianni’s hands Guido is a complex character whose neuroses, obsessions, weaknesses and fears are utterly fascinating to watch. They’re the triggers for him to drift into a world in which reality is constantly invaded by his fantasies, dreams and desires, as if he’s hoping somehow that they’ll re-ignite his powers. That may involve a visit to a steam bath for an audience with an influential Catholic Cardinal, who tells him solemly “outside the church there is no redemption,” or entering a fantasy realm in which all the women from his life appear in a large house that again, resembles a kind-of spa or giant laundry at the least. They pamper and fuss over him, wrapping him up in towels while he struts around like a harem keeper, even cracking a whip when the women begin to turn on him, expressing their frustrations and anger at how selfish he’s been and how poorly treated they were after the initial fire of lust had subsided. Scenes of a man marching around with a whip like this must have shocked many viewers back in 1963 and they’re still pretty wild today BUT nothing vicious is happening and it’s clear that Fellini is with the women all the way; Guido is hearing truths he needs to hear and the whip is really on him.
Apart from his creative crisis, Guido’ personal life is a shambles. He’s estranged from wife Luisa played by the great French star Anouk Aimee, who’d also been in LA DOLCE VITA. When his girlfriend Carla (Sandra Milo) arrives at his hotel – where the production crew is staying and hoping they’ll be working soon – Guido hardly seems excited and sends her to another hotel. He may not be able to connect properly with the women in his life but in his imagination its different – he constantly has visions of Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), a film star whom he pictures as perfect casting for his film and the ideal woman for his life. Cardinale was an inspired choice, a true star who’d shot to fame in Visconti’s ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS (1960) and whose brilliant career includes ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968) and FITZCARRALDO (1982). There’s another female character that floats in and out of the picture that I’d like to draw attention to. Gloria, the young girlfriend of Guido’s close friend Mario. We first see her early on, while Guido’s getting feedback from the critic Daumier. Gloria is played by Barbara Steele, an English actress who starred in a series of Italian horror films including THE HORRIBLE DR HITCHCOCK (1962) THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (1964) and the all-time classic BLACK SUNDAY (1960). Mario Bava, director of BLACK SUNDAY described Steele as having “impossible eyes” and he was right, you can’t take your eyes off her eyes as soon as you see her. Steele is one of the great Scream Queens of all time: you can also see her in David Cronenberg’s SHIVERS (1974) and the original, very fun version of killer fish cult classic PIRAHNA (1978).
Things get crazier… deliriously, magnificently crazier as we get a glimpse of the sci-fi film Guido’s meant to be making. He visits a mega-set of a space ship, which looks like a giant meccano contraption and sits in the middle of nowhere resembling a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Could this be a metaphor for Guido’s creative powers at this time – there’s something in the middle but its barren and unsupported at the edges. Meanwhile the casting process continues with screen tests to determine who’ll play what role. The camera tests are static, head and shoulders shots without any aspects of performance or audition. As Guido watches them and makes the comment “there’s no part and no film” I was reminded of the famous Screen Tests Andy Warhol shot between 1964 and 1966 at his New York Factory studio – over 500 reels of mostly famous faces who weren’t actually screen testing for anything: they were in fact portraits created without a brush and with a movie camera and as independent works of art. That seems to be what Guido’s doing here, collecting things, objects, people, faces, hoping to make sense of it all.
This is a film that knows it’s a film. Most movies create an illusion – for us the viewers – of a “real” world we’re given access to and one that unfolds as if cameras and crew members weren’t present. 81/2 never pretends to make this contract with us. It draws attention to the artifice of cinema and talks back to us, as if it’s saying “look at how this art form works, it’s completely chaotic but when the ingredients are right it somehow comes together and can be magical … like the film you are watching right now.” In that respect it shares common ground with Robert Altman’s THE PLAYER (1992) and Francois Truffaut’s DAY FOR NIGHT (1972), two other great films about art and artifice in cinema. When shooting began in May 1962 in the same sort of chaos we see on screen Fellini’s American press officer Dina Boyer asked him to give some sort of explanation for what he was doing. He told her that he hoped to convey the three levels "on which our minds live: the past, the present, and the conditional - the realm of fantasy.” He succeeded brilliantly, this is a fantasy indeed but one that is rooted in human emotion, frailty, doubt, egotism and finally the most powerful and beautiful quality we possess – the power of love.
The power of Nino Rota’s music is also part of 81/2’s many charms. Rota was an amazingly prolific composer, conductor and musician who provided the scores for over 170 productions, including THE GODFATHER (1972), THE GODFATHER PART II (1974) – for which he won an Oscar – and about 1/3 of the films and shorts made by Fellini. Their partnership is as significant as Steven Spielberg and John Williams or David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti. Rota’s music is one of the things that holds 81/2 together, even when the “plot” - if we can use that term here – seems to be going off the rails. Fellini loved the circus and it’s Rota’s jaunty, flamboyant circus-like rhythms that make 81/2 bounce along so merrily. I discovered Nino Rota thanks to Fellini and if you like the music you hear in this film it might just lead you on some wonderful musical journeys of your own. At Fellini’s funeral in 1993 his widow and lifelong artistic collaborator Giullieta Masina asked a trumpeter to play Rota’s Improviso Dell’angelo. You can find a clip of this on You Tube and it’s truly spine tingling stuff.
81/2 received a rapturous response when first released, with Italian critic Giovanni Grazzini declaring “the beauty of the film lies in its 'confusion'... a mixture of error and truth, reality and dream, stylistic and human values, and in the complete harmony between Fellini's cinematographic language and Guido's rambling imagination. There isn't a set, a character or a situation that doesn't have a precise meaning on the great stage that is 8 1⁄2" One of the few detractors was legendary American critic Pauline Kael who called it “a structural disaster.” 81/2 won Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Production Design for Black and White films. Fellini was also nominated for Best Director. If you’re new to Fellini I recommend following up 81/2 with LA STRADA (1954) from his early period starring Guilietta Masina and Anthony Quinn, AMARCORD (1973) from his middle era and from his later phase CITY OF WOMEN (1980), with Marcello Mastroianni again surrounded by women. 81/2 had a huge influence on cinema and filmmakers. Among the many films it inspired are Paul Mazursky’s ALEX IN WONDERLAND (1970), Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES (1980) Peter Greenaway’s 8&1/2 WOMEN (1999). It was also the basis for the 1982 Broadway musical 9, which ran for 729 performances and won five Tony awards including Best Musical. ( was also adaped for the big screen in 2009, with Daniel Day-Lewis in the pivotal role. This masterpiece seems to exist in a world of its own and . you can find 81/2 for rent on You Tube movies.
Our next attraction on this foreign language Oscar edition of the Classic Film Club comes from 1969. It was the first film to be nominated for Best Picture and Best Foreign Language film. It won the latter and an Oscar for best editing, and was also nominated for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Z (pronounced Zee) is a political thriller about the assassination of a progressive politician and the attempted cover-up by military, political and bureaucratic forces. It’s a French-Algerian production, filmed in Algeria and directed by the Greek-French filmmaker Konstantinos Gavras, known professionally as Costa-Gavras. Z was made at a very volatile time: the May 1968 riots, Democratic Convention violence, assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were still fresh in the memory and a general air of tension prevailed as protests against the war in Vietnam escalated. Z had its world premiere in Cannes in May 1969 and opened in the US on the 8th of December, just two days after the infamous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway where 18 year old black man Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death, on camera, by Hells Angels member Alan Passaro. The so-called Summer of Love that began in 1967 had become the winter of hate by December 1969 and it was into this environment that Z was released in the USA. Indeed, Z came to mind and I really wanted to give it a fresh look after watching the storming of the US Capitol on January 6 this year, when the foundations of democracy were assaulted by extremist groups. Z is based on the book by Greek author and diplomat Vassilis Vasilikos and it’s worth spending a little time now talking about the book and the real-life characters. You can watch and enjoy Z without any prior knowledge but having a little background information adds even more to its impact. Vassilikos’ novel is a thinly disguised account of the 1963 assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, a champion athlete, WW2 resistance hero and left-wing member of parliament. Lambrakis had just delivered an anti-war speech when he was killed in public by two right-wing extremists. Half a million people attended Lambrakis’ funeral, which also served as a protest against Greece’s right wing government and its monarchy. The investigation into Lambrakis’ death was headed by Christos Sartzetakis, a diligent, honest magistrate who uncovered damning connections to police, army and far-right forces. In the aftermath of the 1967 military coup Sartzetakis was imprisoned and the killers were set free. Sarzetakis survived, and went on to serve as President of Greece from 1984 until his death in 1990. The film’s title comes from first letter of the Greek word Zi, meaning “he lives.” The letter Z appeared in graffiti all over Athens after Lambrakis’ death and became an internationally recognised symbol of peace and democracy. Next time you see a documentary with archival footage about political unrest in the 1960s, look out for Z’s painted on walls in the background.
There’s a striking text message during the opening credits of Z. It reads: “Any relation to real persons or events is not coincidental – it is intentional.” It’s the complete opposite of what’s usually written in the end credits of dramas and it says so much about the film we’re about to watch.
Even if no country, city or places are ever named in Z we know it’s based precisely on events in Greece, 1963, but it could be taking place anywhere and at any time. In fact event like this have taken place almost everywhere and throughout history.
The character representing Grigoris Lambrakis is also not named. Played by French icon Yves Montand, he’s known simply as “The Deputy,” a member of the opposition – and a former Olympic champion - who’s gaining widespread support for his promotion of pacifism and democratic principles. Before we meet the Deputy we’re given a bracing picture of the political landscape. The opening scenes take place during an apparently dry and boring conference about government agricultural policy. That’s until the Chief of Military Police steps up to the microphone and starts talking about the need to combat “mildew of the mind” and how blights such as pacifism are “infections” that must be stopped by pro-government forces he describes as “antibodies.” Religion comes into the mix as well. “God casts no light on the reds” he says, using the traditional right-wing tactic of casting anyone in opposition as a godless communist. Much like we still hear today, it’s a playbook that’s never been retired.
These introductory passages might make you think that Z is going to be a dirge of rhetoric and left-wing idealism – like all that Marxism and Maoism that made many political films of the 60s and 70s so tough to watch and look embarrassingly naïve today. But Z is anything but a tough slog to watch. It’s a tense, complex crime thriller with a potent political backdrop. Costa-Gavras generates strong suspense from the moment we meet The Deputy and rumours about an attempt on his life begin to circulate. As the fateful moment draws near we see government figures making their way to a performance by the Bolshoi ballet. What a perfectly ironic alibi, attending a high culture event featuring the famous dance company from Communist Russia, while hired thugs carry out the assassination of a supposed left-wing threat.
After the deputy is attacked by these thugs he’s rushed to hospital and lingers in a coma for several days before dying. There’s no attempt to disguise the identities of the killers, a couple of goons named Yago and Vago. Rather than a whodunit, Z is a howdunnit, as it begins to connect the dots between the grungy killers and people in high office. Carrying out this task is another unnamed character, The Magistrate, played by French great Jean-Louis Trintignant, and based on Christos Sartzetakis, the honest legal investigator and future President of Greece I mentioned before. Trintingnant, famous for Claude Lelouch’s A MAN AND A WOMAN (1966), Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST (1970) and more recently Michael Haneke’s AMOUR (2012), won Best Actor at Cannes for his performance as a man determined to find the truth, even under the most intense pressure and danger that mounts as his incorruptibility becomes apparent to those who expect him to simply roll over and pervert the course of justice. The Magistrate is the key to the film being so watchable and accessible: he is not a political creature who espouses ideology, he is simply, wholly dedicated to pursuing the facts of the matter. Playing an important and exciting side-role to The Magistrate is The Photojournalist, played by Jacques Perrin (he’s also a producer of Z). He’s a classic muckracking journalist type, doggedly pursuing the story from every angle, which includes barging in on the Deputy’s widow, Helene, with uncomfortable questions. Helene is played by Irene Pappas, the only Greek actor in this most Greek of stories. Like Yves Montand, Pappas, who became an international star in ZORBA THE GREEK (1963) and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961) doesn’t have much screen time but makes a major impact as the wife of a man who was anything but a saint. Again, this is such a strong aspect of the drama. The Deputy is a flawed man, with personal failings alongside his political heroics. He’s very human and not the kind of majestic political superhero he might have been in a lesser film. Interestingly, Irene Pappas was a member of the Greek Communist Party and fled to Italy after the 1967 coup.
Z is a pacy, kinetic thriller that provides real insight into how authoritarian governments seize and maintain power. It also goes into almost documentary-like detail when depicting the strategies of individuals and groups that refuse to stay silent and live in fear. For all its excitement and intrigue, it’s also a sober film, never getting caught up in dreamy idealism about fairness, equity and social justice being magically restored simply by getting rid of an oppressive regime. The screenplay is so much smarter than that.
Z was Costa-Gavras’ third feature, following the mystery-thriller THE SLEEPING CAR MURDERS (1966) and World War II French resistance drama SHOCK TROOPS (1967). Z reflects some aspects of his life: his father had fought Nazis in the Greek resistance before being labeled a communist and imprisoned. As a result Costa-Gavras was denied educational opportunities at home and moved to France, where he studied at the famous IDHEC film school and became an assistant to noted filmmakers including Rene Clair, Rene Clement and Jacques Demy (THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOUG, 1964). Following Z Costa-Gavras made a series of outstanding, politically charged films such as THE CONFESSION (1970), starring Yves Montand as a character based on Czech politician Artur London, STATE OF SIEGE (1972), based on the 1970 kidnapping of US Embassy official Dan Mitrone in Uruguay, and his best known film, MISSING (1982), starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek and based on the disappearance of American journalist Charlie Horman in Chile, 1973, following the overthrow of President Salvador Allende and the start of brutal military rule under General Augusto Pinochet. Lemmon, Spacek and the film were nominated, and it won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Costa-Gavras is 88 years old and still making movies, including THE AX (2005) CAPITAL (2012) and ADULTS IN THE ROOM (2019). Everything with his name on it is well worth watching and if you want to look at some more great political films from the same era as Z I strongly recommend THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (1966, d: Gillo Pontecorvo) and the extraordinary Bolivian feature BLOOD OF THE CONDOR (1969, d: Jorge Sanjinas). It’s a great pity we don’t see more political cinema these days. Maybe it’s been displaced by political reality drama we see playing out live, 24 hours a day on social media and other platforms.
Our final stop on each meeting of the Classic Film Club is the trash and treasure department where I seek out the best of offbeat, obscure and otherwise strange cinema for your discovery. We started off today in Italy with Fellini and we’re also going to finish in Italy with a visit to the wonderful world of giallo films. What are giallo films, I hear you say? Giallo is Italian for yellow, and is applied broadly to Italian pulp crime films which reached their zenith in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. The name originated from crime novels that were first issued by the giant Mondadori publishing house in 1929, all of which had yellow covers and were printed on appropriately cheap paper often with yellow edges. The word has become so strongly associated with Italian crime films that you’ll often read descriptions of crime flicks from other countries referred to as giallos if their stylistic approach is similar. And by that I mean a hard-boiled foundation of murder-mystery with added ingredients including psychological thriller, psychological horror and sometimes supernatural horror and eroticism. If you’re already a giallo fan I salute you, and if not there are some fabulous gems to seek out from the thousands that were made. The biggest name in giallo cinema is also one of the biggest names in Italian popular cinema over the past 50 years. Dario Argento is perhaps best known for his 1977 horror classic SUSPIRIA, and that’s probably thanks to Luca Guadagnino’s recent remake with Tilda Swinton. Argento established his reputation with a great giallo called BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE in 1970. His other gialli include TENEBRAE (1982), OPERA (1987) SLEEPLESS (2001) and his masterpiece DEEP RED (aka Profondo Rosso, 1975). British actor David Hemmings plays a jazz pianist who witnesses a murder and teams up with a sassy journalist played by Argento’s then-wife and artistic collaborator Daria Nicolodi. Seek out DEEP RED any way you can. It’s Hitchcock-standard and has a superb score by Argento’s regular musical associates the Italian rock band Goblin. After that you might want to check out BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964), about models from a shady Rome agency being murdered by a masked killer. It was directed by the hugely influential stylist Mario Bava, whom I mentioned earlier when talking about the actress Barbara Steele in 81/2. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is available on Amazon Prime, as is THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK (1974) with Mimsy Farmer playing a scientist haunted by hallucinations – or are they? – of her dead mother. Prime also has a fine documentary ALL THE COLORS OF GIALLO (2019), which gives a great overview of the genre and includes interviews with key figures such as Dario Argento, Mario Bava’s son and filmmaker, Lamberto Bava, and the late, truly great Daria Nicolidi. I could go on forever about giallo film so before I get completely carried away I’ll just recommend a few more titles. You can find all of these on the internet with a bit of searching. These are among the very best giallos of all time and they’re worth it for the tiles alone: for example LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN (1971) and DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING (1972), both directed by the angry old man of Italian cinema, Lucio Fulci. Murder and sculpture are combined to great effect in WHO SAW HER DIE (1972) starring George Lazenby, Australia’s very own one-shot James Bond, and from the ‘80s there’s STAGE FRIGHT (1986, aka Aquarius), a super-tense backstage murder mystery directed by Michele Soavi, former assistant to Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. And finally, don’t forget about DEATH LAID AN EGG (1968) and, because nothing could follow this one STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER (1975) starring the marvellous Edwige Fenech. Thank you very much for listening to this foreign-language film edition of the Classic Film Club, I’ll be back soon with more movie musings. Until then, bye for now.