After all the pomp and pageantry of the previous entry in the Fox 75th Anniversary Collection, Cleopatra, it’s refreshing to get back to a more indie-styled offering with Zorba the Greek, a wildly successful yet simple film about the unlikely friendship between a shy Briton and a lustful Greek. Yet for all its verite look and chick black and white photography, Zorba is really just a classic tale, a modern superego/id story that also manages a subtext about village intolerance and old-world prejudice.
We’re getting into some lengthy films now (the last few clocked in at well over 2 ½ hours), and this one is no exception. But we’re in the 60s now, and that was getting to be the norm. Also fashionable was Zorba’s setting – along with films like Never On Sunday, Topkapi, and the works of Fellini and Goddard, moviegoing America loved all things Mediterranean in the early 60s. With the Paramount antitrust act of 1949, along with the Miracle Supreme Court decision allowing First Amendment rights to cover movies, foreign films and indies seeped into theatres and art houses throughout the 50s, whetting the collective American appetite for the cinematic export. By 1964, people were ready, and Zorba’s deft, delicate touch, along with its memorable score and arty look, entranced filmgoers of al stripe, and to the tune of 23 million, a grand success back in the day.
We begin by meeting Basil, a transplanted Englushman, the recent inheritor of a lignite mine on Crete. Hoping to repair and reuse it, he accepts the offer of a scruffy transient to help – a Greek named Zorba – and from there the duo take a steamer to the beautiful island with the hopes of great success and profit. But almost immediately, differences emerge. Zorba is intrigued by an eccentric older woman, Madame Hortense, who has a heart of gold, a buried past and a bundle of insecurities. The two carouse until late at night, with Basil astonished by the antics f his new friend yet too reserved to partake. Zorba implores him to come out of his shell, even coaxing him into soliciting the attentions of “the widow,” a beautiful woman chastised by the village for not remarrying. (They tease her when she loses her goat; only Zorba offers help.) But Basil, a true, repressed Briton at heart, prefers his life of quiet desperation.
Meanwhile, Zorba inspects the mine and sees that it is dangerously dilapidated. The solution, he declares, is to bring timber down from the mountains to bolster it back up, but one problem exists: the mountains are owned by local monks. Zorba, in his usual, ingratiating way, moseys on up to the brothrrs, proceeds to get them drunk, and manages to seal the deal, unofficially at least. The next problem, how to get the timber down, is solved by Zorba’s half-cocked contraption – a long set of wires with a carriage to allow the logs to sail down to the mine via the force of gravity. Skeptical Basil is quietly optimistic; any doubts he might still harbor seem to be put to rest with Zorba’s dancing – a fiery passionate spectacle which Basil privately tries to emulate.
But Zorba’s passion can overextend. When he goes to town for supplies, he spends his money carelessly on women and wine, inciting Basil’s anger, especially after he is forced to lie to the Madame in order to cover up Zorba’s debauchery. But Basil himself has trouble too; he finally gets the nerve to “be” with the widow, but the word spreads throughout the village, and is laid intentionally upon the ears of a young admirer, who subsequently commits suicide. The widow is blamed, and when she tries to attend the boy’s funeral, her throat is slashed by the boy’s father. Basil regrets being powerless to save her, but his grief is allayed, just a bit, when Zorba agrees to marry the Madame, knowing she will die the next day of pneumonia. She does, after their “I do’s,” and he offers her comfort as she dies, after seeing how the vulterous village women are all set to ransack her house. All that’s left now is Zorba’s ambitious lumber machine, but it too has a sad end, collapsing after only three logs are sent down. Basil and Zorba’s response? Eating… and dancing. They will go their separate ways, forever, but each life enriched immeasurably by the experience.
Zorba is by far not a perfect film. As I mentioned, f follows nearly by rote the formula of the introverted vs. outgoing personalities, and puts them “on the road” (perhaps the beginning of that subgenre, a la Scarecrow and Planes, Trains and Automobiles). And again, we have the outgoing one usually overcompensating for something – in this case, a troubling past that includes a deceased child and some pretty harrowing war experiences. Basil, as played by Alan Bates (before he became a shaggy weirdo), is the introverted one, but he’s a bit too mannered, too wide-eyed and reticently amazed. I was constantly aware of the performance, and I wasn’t particularly intrigued by the character, even if it is the film’s entry point. For that matter, there are too many scenes of gaping onlookers, be it in a boat or village center, as if it’s the director’s method of building suspense. Ultimately, it does all build up to the film’s climax, the Widow’s murder (too telegraphed, by the way), but it’s such a tragic event it’s hard to come down from it, sort of the same problem Dead Poet’s Society ran into – a horrible death! Ah, well, seize the day, mourn quickly and live your own life to the fullest.
But most of this is fairly easily overlooked by one thing: Anthony Quinn as Zorba. He encapsulates the role as only a handful of actors have been able to do in the history of American film. From his clingy, invasive entrance on the boat, nattering away to Basil with quips and quotes, to his final, somber dance on the beach with his newfound friend, he embodies this thing called life like no other actor either dared or successfully accomplished. Put him up there on the list of other memorably infectious free spirits – Holly Golightly, Rande McMurphy, Arthur Bach, etc.. – he’s earned it.
And in the end he’s the real reason Zorba has remained such a magical work – a little touch of joie de vivre, the European spirit of taking time to enjoy life. It’s that theme that transcends all else in the film, and a theme most desperately needed as the 60s rolled on, into the most tumultuous and chaotic era of recent times.