Unrelentingly critical in its depiction of Hellenic culture, Michael Cacoyannis’ Zorba The Greek (1964) provides Anthony Quinn with his most enigmatic screen role; that of a lovable, yet occasionally ruthless, wandering drunkard with the proverbial heart of gold. And it is saying much of Quinn’s formidable talents as an actor that his Zorba is a character morally ambiguous, yet strangely upstanding at the same time; someone who is emotionally and even socially flawed, yet lusty and passionate about the things he truly believes in. Based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Life and Adventures of Alexis Zorbas, the symbiosis between Cacoyannis’ screenplay and Walter Lasally’s starkly plain cinematography give the film verisimilitude. In Kazantzakis’ novel the narrator is unnamed, but of Greek heritage and with socialist ideals firmly implied. He is an intellectual determined to immerse himself in the plight of the working-class peasants by reopening an abandoned lignite mine.
By contrast, the film’s narrative begins along the windswept Greek coastline on an unpleasantly stormy afternoon. Stuffy, half English/half Greek writer, Basil (Alan Bates) is preparing to make his journey to Crete on a commercial boat. Regrettably, his education abroad has filled his mind with high ideals and platitudes that will prove utterly useless to him in the real world very shortly. Living abroad has also isolated Basil from his own Greek heritage. Now, as he patiently waits amongst the locals for his cruise to get underway, Basil begins to exhibit the hallmarks of an uppity, socially mobile prig. But Basil is about to have his Ivy League middle class morality tested after a chance meeting with enthusiastic peasant, Zorba (Anthony Quinn). After learning of Basil’s plans to reopen the lignite mine, Zorba finagles an invitation to accompany Basil to Crete. Zorba tells Basil he has mining experience. Actually, Zorba is a jack of all trades, but sadly, a master of none – his chief virtue being an exemplary lust for life that permeates everything he does. Undaunted, Basil agrees to take Zorba on as an employee of the mine.
Basil’s plans are met with a most favorable response from the locals, whose own economy has been struggling ever since the old mine closed. Zorba ingratiates himself with flirtatious aplomb to Madame Hortense (Lila Kedrova); a reclusive French war widow and the one relatively wealthy woman in town who owns the Hotel Ritz. Basil is repulsed by Zorba’s crass suggestion that he seduce Hortense for her money. Fearless, Zorba pursues his own seduction of the flighty hotel proprietor. After discovering that the mine is in a perilous state of disrepair, Basil is immediately disillusioned. Zorba, however, suggests that they pursue a logging industry instead by convincing the monks who own the heavily treed property next door to allow them access to the timber. That evening Zorba attends the monks in their monastery where everyone gets paralytic drunk. Sealing the deal, Zorba returns hours later to perform a dance that mesmerizes Basil. The next day, Basil and Zorba go into town where they accidentally meet ‘the widow’ (Irene Papas); a broken hearted young woman who is taunted by the locals for staunchly refusing to remarry, especially since one of their own young men, Pavlo (George Voyadjis) has repeatedly expressed his romantic desires towards her.
After experiencing her disgrace in public, Basil compassionately offers the widow his umbrella to shield her from the rain. And although she denies even this simple kindness at first, the widow reluctantly accepts the umbrella. Zorba suggests to Basil that this could be the start of a relationship for him. But Basil is shy and retiring, perhaps because he knows firsthand how unkind people can be. Hortense confides in Zorba that she loves him and Basil entrusts Zorba with some money needed to purchase supplies for their forestry operation in the nearby town of Chania. Yet, left to his own accord Zorba uses the money to indulge his carnal lusts with a much younger cabaret dancer. He writes Basil a confession of squandering his money and finding love elsewhere and Basil, wounded by these betrayals, lies to Hortense by promising her that Zorba will return to them both to marry her very soon.
Upon his return to the village with supplies and gifts, Zorba is outraged to learn of Basil’s lie to Hortense. He confronts Basil with his own whereabouts in his absence and Basil confides that he and the young widow have indeed consummated their relationship. Regrettably, a villager has caught sight of them, relaying his discovery to Pavlo who is mercilessly ridiculed by everyone in town. Shamed and great despair, Pavlo drowns himself in the sea, his body discovered the next day by the local fishermen. Pavlo’s heartbroken father holds a funeral attended by all, including the widow, who is cornered in the church courtyard and accosted, then stoned by the villagers as revenge for the boy’s suicide. Unable to bring himself to intervene, Basil sends one of the locals, Mimithos (Sotiris Moustakas) to fetch Zorba, who arrives just in time to prevent Pavlo’s best friend from plunging his knife into the fallen woman.
Believing that he has diffused the situation, Zorba comforts the widow and turns his back on the crowd. Pavlo’s father pulls his own knife and slits the widow’s throat. As she bleeds to death, the crowd apathetically shuffles away leaving only Basil, Zorba and Mimithos to mourn her brutal passing. The next afternoon Hortense presses Zorba on a more concrete timeline for their pending nuptials. Although it has always been Zorba’s intension to delay their marriage, he relents to an engagement after Hortense produces a pair of golden rings she has had made especially for the occasion. Basil is delighted by Zorba’s change of heart. Regrettably, a short while later Hortense contracts a fatal bout of pneumonia. Learning of Hortense’s demise the desperate villagers storm her house. Zorba makes a valiant attempt to thwart their ransacking, but to no avail. The Hotel Ritz is stripped clean of its treasures and Zorba returns sometime later to find only Hortense’s corpse left behind.
Zorba builds an elaborate contraption to ferry lumber down the steep hillside. A blessing ceremony is held to mark the occasion. Unfortunately, the event turns disastrous as the logs prove too unsteady and violently dislodge the support beams of his apparatus, destroying all of his hard work. Left behind to lament this final insult, Zorba attempts to tell Basil his future – predicting a journey to a great city. Basil, who has already decided to return to England, encourages Zorba to teach him how to dance the sirtaki. As Basil and Zorba practise their dance along a forgotten stretch of beach, Basil laughs off the ridiculousness of their many follies together.
Zorba the Greek is a film of curious contradictions. While its ultimate message seems to be a celebration of life, many of the film’s individual scenes emphasize unrelentingly cruel hardships that impede this possibility. The un-avenged murder of the widow and the ransacking of the Hotel Ritz in particular are despicably vial acts that transform the seemingly innocuous townsfolk into a devouring rabble, animalistic and all consuming. Yet, somehow Cacoyannis’ screenplay and direction manages to bring calm from this chaos. Even queerer is the overriding casual acceptance of these events as merely par for the course of the harsh realities of life on the isle of Crete. This passive acquiescence begins to seep into the story almost from the moment Basil arrives on the island, and gradually builds so that neither of the aforementioned events seem out of place or, even more bizarrely, strange to the audience. They are, quite simply, a truth about humanity and our oft’ inhumane treatment of one another.
The film is also blessed by Mikis Theodorakis’ infectious mandolin score; its buoyant strains delightfully at odds with the more repressive realities of the narrative. And then, of course, there is Anthony Quinn; a veritable zeitgeist of conflicted and contrasted emotions, seamlessly blended into one overwhelming and multifaceted characterization. He is the embodiment of what we think of today when we conjure to mind images of the Hellenic culture, and this despite the fact that he was born of Mexican/American parentage. Nevertheless, Quinn’s great gift to American cinema has always been his earthy appeal. He is a very genuine actor, immersed in his own passion for his craft. As such, he becomes wholly believable as the ebullient and irrepressible Greek peasant. Aside: on the day that Quinn was to shoot his dance with Alan Bates on the beach he was suffering from a broken foot, thereby forcing an improvisation of the loose shuffle he performs in the film. That ‘shuffle’ has since been trademarked by many a Greek performer as the definitive way to dance the sirtaki.
Opah! MGM/Fox Home Video has released Zorba the Greek with a 1080p image that is rather impressive with a beautifully rendered gray scale. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are very clean. Fine detail is fully realized and film grain looks more natural than gritty, as it often did on Fox’s DVD incarnation of Zorba from some years ago. The audio is DTS stereo surround, with all the limitations of vintage stereo one might expect. Nevertheless, this is a well preserved soundtrack with good fidelity and a very crisp – though never strident – sonic characteristic. Extras include a Biography Special on Anthony Quinn, alternative opening, a somewhat meandering audio commentary from Cacoyannis and the original theatrical trailer – basically everything that was included on the original DVD from Fox. Regrettably, the extras are in 480i standard resolution. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)