You are going to see a woman stoned just because a man killed himself because she slept with another man. You are going to see people taunt a widow just because she did not remarry. You are going to see the awful reality of past times. But then you hear the first two notes. Ta-dam! And you already know it’s the sound of syrtaki. Crescendo continues. The movement becomes faster and faster, but this film stays a long time with you.
Directed by Michael Cacoyannis (Michalis Kakogiannis), a Greek Cypriot filmmaker, it was Zorba the Greek (1964) that put the Greek cinema on the map. Cacoyannis’s work was rooted in Greek classical texts, and includes movies like Electra (1962) or Iphigenia (1977), telling the classical stories of female sacrifice. Starring Anthony Quinn as Alexis Zorba and Alan Bates as Basil, the film tells the story of a British-Greek writer Basil raised in Britain, who meets a Greek-Macedonian peasant Zorba and tells him that his goal is to travel to his father’s land and reopen a lignite mine. Zorba persuades Basil to take him along because he’s an experienced worker. In the next couple of days, they find the mine unsafe, but Zorba has an idea to use the nearby forest for logging, and transport the wood using a zip line. But this isn’t a film about a huge business endeavor, this is a film about people and traditions, about inner desires and hidden passions.
The movie itself is not a typical trope of an unlikely friendship. It’s using the Basil-Zorba relationship to tell the story about their two worlds, and how dreadful the existence of a human being may be sometimes. The village people care a lot about tradition and moral duties, but when a person dies, they scavenge the place in a matter of minutes, showing the hypocrisy hiding in each of us. It’s easy to judge other people by our immaculate moral standards, and then forgive ourselves now and then for taking up the wrong path.
Some critics have stated that the plot seems to be watered down and that it becomes a series of unrelated unimportant incidents. But this is not a story about a feat or a goal, this is a depiction of a different world with contrasting traditions. Each of the smaller stories contributes to the overall illustration of such a world. Shot in the wonderful island of Crete, we see the village people trying to steal a widow’s goat just because she still has not remarried. We need to observe people coming out of a church and trying to kill her. We need to see a has-been woman desperate to get married and worrying about what other people will say if she stays single. All of these narratives flow into a unique description of society, not much different from many of our own, but differs only in the choice of moral stances that are considered important.
The movie score by Mikis Theodorakis accompanies the picture perfectly. A classical author of chamber and symphonic music, along with ballets, is best known for his film scores, such as I’ll Met by Moonlight (1957), Z (1969), and Serpico (1973). The theme of the famous Zorba’s dance, choreographed by Giorgos Provias, became a Greek national trademark, inspired by traditional Cretan dances. After an ultimate failure, the only thing that one can do is – dance. And if this story teaches us anything, it’s the fact that small pleasures in life are powerful enough to keep you going. And this film does the same.
- Basea, Erato (2015). Zorba the Greek, Sixties exotica and a new cinema in Hollywood and Greece. Studies in European Cinema 12: 60-76.
- Karalis, Vrasidas (2017). Realism in Greek Cinema: From the Post-War Period to the Present. I. B. Tauris.
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