While visiting Cyprus (Greek side) again this year for a nicely executed convalescence, I was introduced to this film through its main theme song, which played through the town of Protaras like it was part of the atmosphere – curiosity kicked in, and the rest as they say, was history.
So what’s Zorba The Greek about? Well, first of all, it’s not set in Greece, it’s set in Crete (a small greek island). Based on the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis and directed by Michael Cacoyannis (A director from Cyprus), our story revolves around the relationship, relationships and misadventures of our 2 main characters; Basil (played by Alan Bates), an introverted Greek-English Writer from an uptight middle class background, who came to Crete in order to reopen a Lignite mine his father owned. And Alexis Zorba (Played by the legendary Anthony Quinn), an unemployed musician with an enthusiasm for life and a simple desire to tag along with Basil for an adventure in his own right…that adventure being to become a miner for a new friend, a possibly see success in the region. While in a small, rural, impoverish Cretan village that isn’t named (but filmed in Kokkino Chorio), both men find women they like – For Basil, it’s the strikingly beautiful woman known simply as “The Widow” (played by greek actress Irene Papas) and for Zorba it’s the French hotel owner, Madame Hortense (played by Russian-French actress Lila Kedrova). As the film progresses, we witness the struggles that both men have to endure…But at the same time, we see how they respond to the circumstances of their surroundings.
Now to break it down…and dance. Due to the fact that this film is over 50 years old, and more focused on reality, any mention of CGI and special effects in this review will be more or less non-existent or fitted under cinematography.
The acting in Zorba The Greek’s incredibly good – especially when you consider the quality of the extras in this film. Much like a Sergio Leone film, everybody had “The right kind of face”, and many behaved and performed with a great passion, through happiness, sadness, and even silence. Anthony Quinn is obviously the star of the show, putting on 1 of the most charismatic performances in the history of cinema (I really mean that). Alan Bates was an excellent straight-man throughout, not only playing a character who balanced the passionate Zorba on screen, but also 1 who could learn from him. The Widow, though quiet, expressed a great intensity. And Lila Kedrova as Madame Hortense was…magnificent – easily the 2nd best actor/actress in this film.
The Characters are awesome – but there’s a reason why this film is called Zorba The Greek. Anthony Quinn simply steals the show, and the movie would definitely be lesser without him in it. Based on a real miner named Goigis “George” Zorbas, who became close friends with the movie’s novelist Nikos Kazantzakis – Zorba is a man of fleeting, change and experience. Much like George Zorbas, Alexis Zorba is also a man of great tragedy – and it is through difficulty and sadness, that he learned to find things to make him happy (within the context of happiness being a choice and not a feeling). It could be something as simple as a good meal or a good drink or finding the humorous side of things gone wrong, or simply people being alive.
The Story is really good, yet oddly unorthodox. It’s a movie that flows a lot more like life itself than simply a beginning, middle and end. The plot does exist, but it’s really well disguise under a series of events, with many not particularly connected to each other. For instance, there is no relationship between The Widow and Madame Hortense, other than the fact that they are treated differently by the villagers. As for the choices in macguffins and progression, it’s not your conventional story. Much of it is not sunshine and rainbows, and it’s all within the context of the culture that the film is portraying…what I’m saying is, everybody has a reason in what they do, and the choices of our “heroes” can sometimes be rather antagonising to the villagers, and even to us (For instance, Zorba only reveals truth to Basil, such as his true thoughts and feelings about life, after-life and Madame Hortense).
The music…oh the music. Minimalist, yes. But so memorable and often sweet and cheery and…greek. Especially the opening and the ending theme. Now known as “Zorba’s Dance”, it’s an iconic tune normally associated with modern Greece. variations of the tune have been played, often slower or faster, but still recognisable by the choice of notes and cadence.
The cinematography in this film is brilliant, with some excellent action scenes. Not action movie action scenes, I’m talking about the comedic presentation of a boat in rough seas.
The locations are authentic, as it was mostly filmed in Crete, and therefore perfectly chosen.
Would I recommend Zorba The Greek? Yes! Absolutely! It features a lot of adult themes and jokes without being too raunchy or dark about them. It has a fantastic sense of humanity (For better or worse), as well as being a gritty social commentary about poverty, societies and social norms in general. It shows “The old ways of doing things” as both a demonstration and a debate, and how, despite how terrible the people might be, we shouldn’t let them or circumstances, cause us to lose our zeal for life…at least for too long. If I were to recommend a film for those looking to study character development – this would be 1 of a shortlist along with The Godfather 1 and 2, Amelie, Fight Club and any Coen Brothers film. I would also recommend this film, oddly enough, as a way to cheer someone up – because it can be very relatable, even if you have never been anywhere near Greece or its Islands. It’s a film that finds the beauty in life without sugar-coating anything or submitting to a disney formula (Which is great in its own right, but not here).
Acting: ****3/4 (***** for Anthony Quinn and Lila Kedrova)
Characters: ****1/2 (***** for Zorba!)