As discussed on our podcast on Z in Eavesdropping at the Movies, Z is a great political film marred by homophobia. In talking to friends about it, many of whom had seen the film on its original release, it became clear that they could not remember this aspect of the film. And yet it seems to me to be central. Vago (Marcel Bozuffi) and Yago (Renato Salvatore) are the film’s main henchmen with Vago taking particularly glee in the damage he causes.
In the first clip (below), shortly after we’re introduced to them, and as Yves Montand’s voice talks of the problems of society and the great ideals he espouses, Yago follows Vago’s gaze, tells him, ‘shit, that’s all you think about’, the camera moves up to show us where Vago’s gaze is leading to, and we see an adolescent boy in his undies. Vago grins knowingly and says, ‘yes’. I have mixed feelings about this.
I like that Vago is unashamed of his desires. I like that Yago, particularly as he’s played by the amiable open-faced Renato Salvatore, knows of it; that Vago is out to Yago and that the latter jokes about this in what seems a ‘natural’ way. I don’t think the response would be any different if Vago had been looking at a woman, say. However, it’s very clear that Vago is meant to be the anti-thesis of the handsome, intellectual, heterosexual, idealist, Doctor/Poltician/Saint played by Yves Montand. Montand’s voice-over is the context through which we see and follow Vago’s gaze.
In the second clip (below), Vago, who has earlier wanted his name in the paper, now, since the police are making a case out of the incident he caused, wants it out. What the clip shows us is that the newspaper editor is gay and there’s a suggestion of trading sex for favours. This feeds into the old cliché of gay men forming a cabal. Vago then runs to the bar next door and clicks his heels. Is this because he doesn’t have to have sex with the editor who’s his age but too old for him? Is this because his mission’s accomplished? Because he’s high on the havok he’s wreaked? Perhaps a combination of all these? After he clicks his heels he runs to the bar, positions himself next to an adolescent boy, makes sure their hands touch, first trying to make it seem by accident and then very deliberately so. The stereotype of the homosexual preying on vulnerable adolescents rendered explicit, and particularly disturbing in a film which finds cause and reason for and which humanises every other poor person complicit in causing damage that day.
If it’s not enough that Vago is the anti-thesis of Montand’s Z, preying on young boys and part of a secret homosexual cabal, by the end of the film we’re told he’s a convicted felon found guilty four times, including once for raping a young boy whilst a camp counsellor. So to add to all the damaging stereotypes presented so far, this homosexual is a convicted pedophile.
But that’s not the end, as you can see below, Vago’s thuggery is shown to be brutally misogynist as well.
I find this representation of gay men simultaneously exiciting, unusual and reprehensible in what is meant to be a left-wing film. It’s typical of the era’s politics where the ideal left wing figure is that which Montand represents here (and particularly so considering his star persona of working class Communist man of the people; a model of virility who married Signoret and bedded Monroe); and where to be the era’s most reviled figure is to be that which Vago represents. I suspect the only reasons to make Vago an exuberant thug rather than a mincing queen is to condense clichés of that most reviled by the era’s Marxists into one figure. The gleeful thuggery and lack of shame is what makes Vago unusual and exciting. But to put this figure forth at a time when gay men were actively oppressed in all areas of life seems to me to be reprehensible and one of the film’s great flaws.