Perhaps because it wasn't as imitated as Z (his 1969 breakthrough political thriller), Costa-Gavras’ admirable, if less-known follow-up now seems the more original work.* A fact-based saga on early ‘50s Communist ‘Show Trials’ in Prague, based on a memoir from Lise & Artur London, it cultivates slow-burn horror rather than Z’s escalating kinetic tension. Yves Montand again has the lead, co-starring with wife Simone Signoret, he’s a high-ranking Party Minister caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare of false accusations launched by a chain of command running back to an aging, paranoid Stalin. The narrative structure dabbles in non-linear elements, but mostly sticks to Montand as he is brought into isolated detention and systematically worked over (physically & psychologically) for incremental incriminating confessions, ‘evidence’ for use against a raft of mostly Jewish top officials. The film is all tiny details, pain & pacing, with Costa-Gavras keeping us appalled & at attention. And not without an undertow of absurdist black humor, especially when Montand’s main interrogator (a superbly amoral Gabriele Feretti) decides to freshen up his client’s looks before trial with booster shots and a sun lamp during practice sessions. Of course, Costa-Gavras can’t answer the ultimate question: why such loyalty to a systemically cracked system? His philosophical thinking tends toward action, instinct & personal motivation, not conceptual depth. But on its own terms, this is strikingly good.
DOUBLE-BILL: *The rep on the third in this Political Thriller trio, STATE OF SIEGE/’72, is more didactic/less controlled. No doubt, it deserves a fresh look.