Home Entertainment: Costa-Gavras on Criterion

The Confession & State Of Siege (Costa-Gavras, 1970, 1972) Following the groundbreaking achievements and Oscar-winning success of his masterpiece Z, filmmaker Costas-Gavras suddenly found himself a renowned director worldwide. Rather than fall into any fame-chasing traps, Gavras quickly set about continuing down the track of creating harsh and grounded political thrillers based on true stories with a sense of verisimilitude few of his contemporaries could match. Though neither title made the same splash as Z  upon release, his follow-up projects The Confession and State Of Siege are no less searing and intense thrillers that could only come from true stories. The only thing that’s held back their reputations over the years is the fact that they weren’t as strong as Z, which is pretty unfair given that few movies in general are that impressive. Thankfully, the good folks at Criterion have had enough of these two titles being ignored and released them on gorgeous new Blu-rays before getting around to upgrading Z in HD. Taken together, there’s no denying how remarkable and endearing the movies are, somehow raising ugly political questions that are even more complicated today than they were in the 70s.

The Confession is the best known of the two films and for good reason, it’s a uniquely harrowing depiction of torture and political insanity. Based on an autobiographical tale by Artur London, Yves Montand plays the a Czech communist who is kidnapped by secret agents and transported to a hidden location where he is psychologically and physically tortured to force him to admit that he’s secretly an imperialist spy. Given that’s not the case, London is understandably confused and undergoes an exhaustive ordeal (even treated to sleep deprivation and meaningless marches when not being interrogated) while his wife helplessly struggles to find out what’s happened to him on the outside. The film can be absolutely brutal to watch as the audience is spared none of the intense details (nor was Montand who lost over 20 pounds during shooting and his deterioration shows on screen). On a purely visceral level the film is a grueling masterpiece. Beyond that, it’s also a welcome flipside to Z, which came close to portraying socialists as heroes in contrast to the confused and in-fighting fools present here. Gavras is not a filmmaker who can be easily dismissed as a party propagandist and The Confession handily undoes any of the left-leaning favoritism some unwise viewers might toss at Z. Hardly a fun film to watch, but certainly an unforgettable one. 

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State Of Siege is also based on a true story, but less overtly. This time the setting is Latin America and the subjects are a radical left wing terrorist organization who kidnap three political figures, including a US CIA operative who was been assigned to teach torture and terrorism tactics to local army and police officials for official use. Though the movie initially leans towards favoring the point-of-view of the kidnapping militants, Costa-Gavras’ cleverly non-linear structure reveals equally strong motives and self-centered idiocy on both sides, leading to a big bloody mess with no clear victor. The filmmaker got a surprisingly large budget this time after the success of his previous two thrillers and stages some ambitiously large sequences without ever losing sight of the complex thematic threads at the center of his intriguing morality play. It’s an uncompromising vision of an endless cycle of terrorism, revolution, repression, control, and confusion that somehow feels even more relevant today. The messy tale could all too easily play out in identical fashion now. Costa-Gavras’ mastery of grounded suspense and bleak ironic humor is on full display here and the film is easily one of the director’s best, despite being one of the trickiest to find in North America for decades thanks to George Stevens Jr. and Charlton Heston’s successful campaign to ban the movie from theatrical release (charming man that Chuck Heston, huh?).

Both films have been treated beautifully by Criterion in their HD debuts. While Costa-Gavras’ gritty and grounded visual style is dominated by grain and seemingly haphazardly captured images, it still benefits immensely from Criterion’s scrub job. Colors are vibrant, details are rich, and ugly details you’ll never forget are visible for the first time. The special feature sections are also stacked. The Confession gets the most content kicking off with a wonderful on set documentary about the film directed by no less than Chris La Jatee Marker that’s rather brilliant as well as a wonderfully rich hour long career retrospective interview with Costa-Gavras recorded at a film festival in 1998. Beyond that comes archival interviews with the real Artur London and Yves Montand providing a few alternative perspectives as well as contemporary interviews with editor Francoise Bonnot and film scholar John Michalczyk that look back on the film fondly and place it in it’s proper context. 

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State Of Siege has only two special features, but they are dooseys. First comes archival NBC news reports on the kidnapping that inspired the film that showcases the disturbingly one-sided perspective the media takes to such stories. Even better is a wonderful new 30-minute interview with Costa-Gavras looking back on the film that’s so rich with observations and acute memories that it’s a shame the filmmaker didn’t also chat about The Confession at the same time. Collectively, these are two absolutely fantastic discs for underrated Costa-Gavras classics that will hopefully get a little boost in attention as a result of their Criterion release. The only thing that could have made these discs better would be a box set along with Z to complete the unofficial trilogy. Still, that would be greedy and given that a fresh 4K edition of Z screened at the Cannes Film Festival last week, it’s safe to say that Criterion has separate plans for that masterpiece that we’ll hear about shortly.

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