Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Zorba the Greek (1964) - Mihalis Kakogiannis

I can't imagine the people of Crete thought too highly of Nikos Kazantzakis' popular novel or the film version of the story of a robust Greek named Zorba who takes under his wing a repressed, extraordinarily uptight Englishman and teaches the younger man about life. With the exception of the title character (Anthony Quinn) and a few others, Cretans come across as backward barbarians, whose reprehensible actions seem right out of the middle ages rather than the 20th Century.
Quinn as the exuberant Zorba.
Basil (Alan Bates), apparently long suffering from writer's block, has come to a Greek island to re-open a closed mineral mine, inherited from his father. If successful, he will provide a needed economic boost to the depressed area, and perhaps, recapture enthusiasm for his craft. He meets and befriends Zorba on a boat in passage, and begins a journey that is more about how to live unencumbered by modern expectations and demands than how to operate a mine in a foreign country.

Zorba takes life as it comes. He is in no hurry. Remarkably present, he is loud, full of zest, and in sharp contrast to Basil, whose timidity and fear of the unknown makes life empty and dull. Zorba loves to dance and laugh, and enjoy the company of women. At one point, he tells Basil that "Life is trouble. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble."

This is certainly Quinn's most memorable performance. Nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, he lost to Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady, a result that reflects Academy conservative conventions rather than a pure assessment of the two actor's work in their respective films. Quinn is great and his distinctive laugh wonderfully appropriate for the character. A Mexican by birth, Quinn was terrific at playing other ethnicities. His face, especially with some beard growth, seems nearly universal.

Irene Papas, an exotic beauty, is a widow who attracts the attention of all the men in town, especially a boy whose unrequited passion leads to suicide after he learns that she opened her bedroom to the newcomer, Basil. It is a small part, but she is the film's most sympathetic character. (That it takes Basil most of the movie to act on the obvious overture from the attractive widow is the most exasperating aspect of that man's character). Tragic consequences follow as the entire town holds her responsible. Most readers of the book and viewers of the film surely find their savage response crazy and not anathema to any civilized society. It is difficult to know if the author, Kazantzakis, meant it as some sort of allegory, or as a striking means to contrast their character with that of Zorba, but the scene is quite shocking and unexpected. Only Zorba tries to come to her aid. Basil's tepid reaction is inexplicable and disgusting in light of the couple's recent consummation. After this failure in manhood and decency, it is impossible to like the man.

Irene Papas

The townspeople close in.

A subplot involves Zorba's relationship with an older French woman who runs the hotel, Madame Hortense (Lila Kedova). A lonely woman, well aware that her better days are long behind her, she finds solace and comfort in the arms of the passionate Zorba. For his part, Zorba cares little for monogamy, at one point telling Basil he has known the "full catastrophe: wife, children, and home." Still, for her sake, he makes the old girl happy by participating in an informal wedding shortly before her death. Here we have the second disturbing scene as the raving townspeople loot her residence ahead of the taxman with her body lying on the bed. Sure they are dirt poor, but their timing is outrageously disrespectful.

In the end, Basil's attempt to make the mine a going concern fails miserably. Zorba's complicated plan to bring timber down the mountain to shore up the mine shaft goes haywire. This helps convince Basil that he is out of his element and must return home. It hasn't been a total waste, however; a little of Zorba has rubbed off. Basil asks his mentor to teach him to dance and the film ends with a wonderful scene: the camera starts in a medium shot and slowly pulls back to a high overhead one showing the two men, arm in arm, prancing on the beach.

The crisp black and white photography makes the stark countryside look inhospitable, just like the people. Mostly a rocky island and poor town, it is nothing spectacular to look at. The familiar score creates a perfectly Mediterranean mood.

The film was nominated for 7 Oscars, including Best Film, Actor, and Director.


  1. I share your view entirely. The film was a huge hit at the time, a kind of cross-over between arthouse and commercial, and of course the soundtrack helped!. It is of course an acclaimed novel - but seeing it again a year or two ago I was horrified at the townpeople's barbarity towards the widow and Basil's refusal to get involved, and they looting the Frenchwoman's house as she is dying. What kind of barbarians are these? The man who kills the widow is not even arrested as the townpeople cover for him, and Zorba and Basil continue as if it does not matter about her at all.

  2. Hi, Michael. Yes, even Zorba's reaction to the townspeople is odd to our eyes. Isn't angry the next day; everything just goes on as if nothing ever happened. Maybe the editing explains it. Anyway, I tried to re-read the novel a year ago and couldn't get into it. Twenty-five years ago I thought it was terrific. Funny how our tastes change over time.