Constantinos Gavras (born February 13, 1933,Loutra-Iraias, Greece), better known as (Constantin) Costa-Gavras (and other variants), is a Greek-French filmmaker best known for films with overt political themes, most famously the dark, fast-paced thriller, Z (1969). Most of his movies were made in French and released with English subtitles; starting with Missing (1982), several were made in English
Costa-Gavras was born to a poor family in the village of Loutra Iraias (Λουτρά Ηραίας), Arcadia. His family spent the Second World War in a village in the Peloponnese, and moved to Athens after the war. His father had been a member of the left-wing EAM branch of the Greek Resistance, and was imprisoned after the war as a suspected communist. His father's record made it impossible for him to attend university or emigrate to the United States, so after high school Costa-Gavras went to France, where he began his studies of law in 1951.
In 1956, he left his university studies to study film at the French national film school, IDHEC. After film school, he apprenticed under Yves Allegret, and became an assistant director for Jean Giono and Rene Clair. After several further positions as first assistant director, he directed his first feature film, Compartiment Tueurs, in 1965.
Costa-Gavras was president of the Cinémathèque française from 1982 to 1987. He is a first cousin of recording artist Jimmie Spheeris and filmaker Penelope Spheeris.
In Z (1969), an investigator, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, tries to uncover the truth about the murder of a prominent leftist politician, played by Yves Montand, while government officials and the military attempt to cover up their roles. The film is a fictionalized account of the events surrounding the assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. It had additional resonance because, at the time of its release, Greece had been ruled for two years by the "Regime of the Colonels". Z won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Costa Gavras and co-writer Jorge Semprún won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Foreign Film Screenplay.
State of Siege (1973) takes place in Uruguay under a conservative government in the early 1970s. In a plot loosely based on the case of US torture expert Dan Mitrione, an American embassy official (played by Yves Montand) is kidnapped by the Tupamaros, a radical leftist urban guerilla group, which interrogates him in order to reveal the details of secret US complicity with repressive regimes in Latin America.
Missing (1982) is about an American journalist, Charles Horman, who disappeared in the bloody coup of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973. His father, played by Jack Lemmon, and wife, played by Sissy Spacek, search in vain to determine his fate. Based on a true story. When the film was released by Universal Studios, Nathaniel Davis, US ambassador to Chile from 1971-1973, filed a US$150 million libel suit, Davis v. Costa-Gavras, 619 F. Supp. 1372 (1985), against the studio, even though he was not directly named. The film won an Oscar for Best Screenplay Adaptation.
In Music Box (1989), a respected naturalized American citizen (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl) is accused of being a Nazi war criminal. The film is loosely based on the case of John Demjanjuk.
Amen. (2003) alleges that Pope Pius XII was aware of the plight of the Jews in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, several years after the issue was considered by some to be settled in favor of the Pope's innocence. The Vatican has refused to release all the evidence relating to the extent of the Pope's knowledge during World War II.
Costa Gavras is known for his rare talent to merge controversial political issues with the entertainment value of commercial cinema. Law and justice, oppression, legal/illegal violence, and torture are common subjects in his work, especially relevant to his earlier films. Costa Gavras is an expert of the “statement” picture, an art form slowly vanishing from the studios of cut-throat, capital-driven cinema.
In the five decades of his career as writer and director, Costa-Gavras has explored some extremely difficult terrain. State of Siege (screenplay, 1973) concerns the systems of torture and violence present during the conflict between Uruguay’s government and the Tupamaro guerrillas in the early 1970s. L'Aveu (The Confession, direction, 1970) follows the path of Artur London, a Czechoslovakian communist arrested for treason and espionage by Stalin’s regime. A more recent work, Amen. (screenplay & direction, 2002) returns to the WWII story of Pope Pius XII, who refused to publicly condemn the holocaust despite repeated pleas from an SS officer, Kurt Gerstein.
Form and style
A dark, threatening, and dramatic tone emerges from the work of Costa Gavras, as he focuses clearly on abuse of power, the dangers of centralized authority, and spies & investigators. His audience generally responds well to this since it makes for a great thriller or mystery, but have at times rejected or been appalled by his work due to its unforgiving content. His style is anything but subtle, although films such as Music Box and Mad City have displayed a significantly more mild approach, in some ways disappointingly so. The former title, however, won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival, and the latter, despite re-inventing the work of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, still fit the bill of political-commercial cinema, taking on issues of journalism, ethics, and money all at once.
Through popular media, Costa Gavras has brought attention to International issues, some urgent, others merely problematic, and he has done this in the tradition of cinematic story-telling. Z (1969), easily his most famous and widely renowned work, is an account of the overthrow of the democratic government in Greece (a strong irony considering the invention of democracy is commonly attributed to this very nation), his homeland and place of birth. The format, however, is a mystery-thriller combination that transforms an uncomfortable history into a riveting story. This is a clear example of how he pours politics into plot, bringing epic conflicts into the sort of personal conflicts we are accustomed to seeing on screen. Costa Gavras has attempted several genres, including murder mystery, war film, and straight-up political fiction films. In most cases these are carried through with a dark humor, a comic sense that has helped make issues of politics more bearable to masses of moviegoers and film critics alike.
Throughout his time, Costa Gavras has consistently brought in audiences and given attention to important facets of the global-political climate. This is in part because of his ability to channel a level of cultural awareness and concern, rather than picking plots purely of his own making. Still, if only from the list of his works, it becomes clear that he does in fact have a personal agenda, one which, due to the timing and audience of his films, has been met with much controversy (interestingly, there are very obvious ties between his own life experiences and the topics of choice). His accounts of corruption in European and American powers (Z, State of Siege, Missing) highlight problems buried deep in the structures of our society, problems which not everyone is comfortable addressing. The same is true for “Amen”, which threw the Roman Catholic Church back into a fire of speculation and criticism regarding their acceptance of the Jewish concentration camps of WWII. This sort of direct challenge makes Costa Gavras both disliked and loved, depending on where he chooses to side on an issue. This is a testament not only to his ability as a filmmaker but as an artist fully capable of producing a “statement” piece, even in today’s cinematic climate.
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