“Zorba the Greek” - Michael Cacoyannis (1964)

There was something unique about Zorba the Greek (1964) that makes it stand out far above the accolades that it gained: it won three US Academy Awards and was nominated for four others, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. It remains today as one of the greatest cinematic expressions of existential engagement and is still a must-see for every young person setting out on his or her own.

The story is based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s Greek novel, Life and Adventures of Alexis Zorba (1946), the 1952 English version of which was titled, Zorba the Greek. The screenplay from writer-director-editor Michael Cacoyannis is a bit different from the novel, and I think the changes made improve the telling.  Nevertheless, as was the case with Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), whose production also had to convert a first-person authorial perspective into the concrete imagery of film and thereby made similarly significant changes, I again recommend both reading the novel and seeing the film.  Despite their somewhat differing perspectives, both the texts and the films have valuable things to offer.

The film’s plot concerns a thirty-something writer, Basil (Alan Bates) [1], who comes to the island of Crete to look after his recently gained inheritance: an abandoned lignite mind on the island.  He meets and hires a Greek peasant, Alexis Zorba (Anthony Quinn), to assist him with these matters, and the rest of the story concerns their activities on Crete over the better part of the ensuing year.  Along the way there are four narrative threads that are followed over the course of the story:
  • The quest of making something economically sustainable out of Basil’s inheritance
  • The amorous relationships of Zorba
  • The amorous relationship of Basil
  • Basil’s relationship with Zorba and how it affects his outlook on life.
In fact it is the last narrative thread that is the most significant.  In the novel, emphasis is made on the idea that Basil is going through a spiritual crisis.  He turned away from Orthodox Christianity, has been seriously exploring Buddhism, and now finds himself stuck in a mental block.  In the film this spiritual crisis goes unmentioned: the author is simply said to be suffering from “writer’s block”.  But in both cases It is through his relationship with Zorba that he begins to see another perspective on things.

The narrative goes through roughly five stages of development.

1.  Arrival
While Basil is waiting for a ship to take him from Greece over to Crete, Zorba approaches him seeking employment.  Zorba is rough-hewn peasant, perhaps in his fifties, who says he is a musician and can do all sorts of jobs. Basil is bookish and refined, Zorba is the opposite – extroverted and boastful.  They make the crossing in rough seas and find their way to an impoverished Cretan village near Basil’s abandoned lignite mine. There they are joyfully welcomed by all the locals, and they go on to make arrangements to stay in the local “Ritz” hotel run by an eccentric old French lady, Hortense (Lila Kadrova).  At a local café, Zorba and Basil see that a beautiful and lone Widow (Irene Pappas) spurns the amorous advances of senior village figures’s infatuated son, Pavlo, and that she is also the object of the all local peasants’ lustful and resentful gazes.

By the end of this section all four narrative threads are operative, with Zorba evidently pursuing Hortense’s affections and emphatically suggesting that Basil seek similar favors from the Widow.

2.  Settling in
Zorba and Basil get more acquainted with each other as they attend to the lignite mine.  In particular, Basil learns about Zorba’s need to express himself through dance and his passionate engagement with the living here-and-now.

The mine is very much run down, with decaying wood beams making it regularly subject to cave ins.  Zorba then comes up with the idea of getting the rights to the surrounding trees on the hillside that are owned by the local monastery.  With wood from the trees, they can refurbish the mine and sell the rest as timber.  Zorba goes to the monastery to negotiate, and although Kazantzakis’s cynical views of the Orthodox Church are largely cut out of the film script, there is sufficient material here to see that Zorba views the monks as superstitious and corrupt fools who can be seduced with wine.

During this section of the story, Zorba continues his affair with Madame Hortense.  Meanwhile the reticent Basil is evidently attracted to the Widow but too shy to act.  When Zorba urges Basil to act, Basil says he doesn’t want to make trouble.  But Zorba responds by saying.
“Boss, life is trouble. Only death is not.
 To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.”
3.  Romancing the ladies
Basil is worried about lack of progress with the mine and his declining funds, so he sends Zorba on a trip to a nearby commercial town to acquire some provisions for their timber venture, which will involve a trolley wire structure to transport logs down the hillside.  When Basil is angered by receiving a message from Zorba boasting of his sexual exploits with a prostitute in the commercial town, he decides to punish Zorba by telling Hortense the lie that Zorba intends to marry her.  Meanwhile Basil finally summons up the courage to go to the Widow’s residence and spends a the night in her arms.  However, Pavlo learns of their tryst and commits suicide.

4.  Dead end
When the Widow attempts to attend the church Easter ceremony, she is blocked by Pavlo’s father and forced out into the courtyard, where a venomous crowd has gathered to stone her for her “immorality”. Basil is unable to stop them, but Zorba arrives just in time to prevent a local village thug from knifing the Widow.  However, when they attempt to leave the scene together, Pavlo’s father runs up and slits the Widow’s throat.  The crowd quickly disperses, and Zorba and Basil are left to stare at the slain woman on the ground.

Later, Hortense, now more frail and suffering from some consumptive illness, presses Zorba about his supposed marriage promise.  Zorba relents and they holds a private ceremony exchanging vows under the stars, with only Basil (and God) as witness.  But Hortense’s illness worsens, and spying village crones rush around saying that the foreigner is dying and that since she has no legal heir, they should all grab her belongings before the government confiscates them.  With Hortense still alive, the villagers, mostly women, surround her house like scavengers and begin stripping everything.  Hortense dies in Zorba’s arms, as the cackling ladies swarm into the hotel and grab everything that is movable. 
5. Timber trolley
With the romantic quests disastrously terminated, there is still the possibility of realizing Zorba’s ambitious plan of harvesting the timber from the hillside forest.  The villagers and the monks gather for a ceremonial inauguration of Zorba’s now constructed trolley wire for timber transport.  The local bishops gives his blessing and successive logs are sent hurtling down the hillside transport wire.  But Zorba’s system was badly designed, and after only three logs, the entire structure is destroyed, sending everyone scurrying for cover.

With all their hopes and plans at an end and Basil’s funds exhausted, Zorba and Basil stare at each amidst the ruins.  It can be seen that despite all the disappointments, Basil has become a changed man – now more resigned to dealing with things as they come and hence more Zorba-like.  Zorba knows that Basil now must return to England and his old life, but he is delighted to hear Basil’s final request – “teach me to dance, will you?”
Although much of the philosophical and religious speculation in the novel has been removed from the film script, the movie does convey the most essential element, perhaps even better and more vividly than Kazantzakis’s prose does -- the unquenchable spirit of Alexis Zorba.

Of course, free spirits like Zorba are always seen in the social milieu that tries to restrain them, and the movie here effectively portrays that social context and issues associated with it.  One cultural theme concerns the position of women.  In the Cretan village society shown in Zorba the Greek (and similar to many traditional societies), the men are obsessed with “face” and the felt need to demonstrate a dominant will.  The easiest target for them to dominate is women, and the social mores almost encourage hostility towards them.  But what could be more unbearable to them than the presence of the defiant and indomitable figure of the Widow? Irene Pappas’s performance here, almost without the benefit of any dialogue, is electric; her smoldering glances and watchful, impassioned demeanor are almost the perfect exemplar of a dark-eyed Aryan beauty.  To the men in the village, she is poison and the embodiment of all their impotent frustrations.  They cannot tolerate her continued existence. The French woman Hortense, on the other hand, is the complete outsider [2].  She is not even a woman to the local villagers; she is just someone to laugh at and to rob.  In the end, because as Zorba remarks she “crossed herself with four fingers” (was not Orthodox), she was not even worthy of a funeral. In contrast, although Zorba was not exactly the apotheosis of feminism, he was much more empathetic towards women.  As he remarked to Basil:
"And as for women, you make fun of me that I love them. How can I not love them? They are such poor weak creatures... they take so little. . . . and they give you all they got.”

Yet the villagers are not simply cast as brutes. Through Walter Lassally’s expressive cinematography and the melodic instrumental folk music of Mikis Theodorakis, the village life is presented as rich and full of the joys and woes of life.  For the most part, Zorba and Basil are part of and take part in their world.

In the context of this traditional society and its sometimes stifling traditions, we have Zorba’s spirited existential expressiveness. Over time he has learned to turn away from the social traditions that suppress people. At one point in the film, Basil chides Zorba about his lack of patriotism. Zorba disgustedly responds by telling him what patriotism taught him to do:
“I have done things for my country that would make your hair stand on end. I have killed, burned villages, and raped women”
Now, he says, he takes people for what they are, not what they represent or what uniform they wear. 

Throughout the film Zorba tries to relate to people in ways that are meaningful to them.  When he meets Hortense, he speaks to her in an engaged, sympathetic fashion. In contrast, Basil holds back in reserve and smirks at her unstylish behavior. In fact Zorba  generally chooses to plunge directly into the goings on that are right in front of him. Indeed, Zorba’s immersion in the vitality of life, itself, is symbolized by the fact that when Hortense dies, he returns to her room to retrieve the one living thing that remained there – her caged parrot.  Similarly, when at the end of the film Zorba’s timber trolley construction is destroyed, he again rushes to save Hortense’s parrot.  For him, life in all its forms is to be treasured.  At the end, the two of them have the following exchange:
Zorba: “Damn it Boss, I like you too much not to say it. You've got everything except one thing: madness! A man needs a little madness, or else...
Basil: “Or else?”

Zorba: “...He never dares cut the rope and be free.”
In contrast to Buddhism’s ego-denying nihilism, Zorba always immerses himself passionately in the living moment, which is exemplified by music and dancing.  Those two modes of being represent the two choices for Basil, and in the end he chooses Zorba’s path.

  1. To adjust to the UK-Greek co-production and the performance of  Englishman Alan Bates, the ethnicity of the writer is altered somewhat.  While Kazantzakis’s unnamed narrator was Greek, the film’s protagonist is said to be half-English and half-Greek.  This actually has a positive result, because it makes Basil even more of an outsider to the Cretan local community.
  2. In the novel, the narrator was Greek, not half-English, so Hortense was the only real “foreigner”.


Anthony Lupo said...

Great blog, by the way.

I've been meaning to see this movie, so I can't comment on the film version yet. But in the book I never got the sense that narrator actually came around to Zorba's way of viewing the world. He acknowledges the superiority of viewing the world the way Zorba does, but his actions (and seemingly his continued commitment to an academic lifestyle after he leaves Crete) leaves me to suspect that the transformation never completes occurs.

If this is the case, then the movie deviates in an important way from the book. I'm curious to see if my reaction to the film turns on this difference.

Also, good spot on labelling this an existentialst work. Kazantzakis isn't usually branded as an existentialist, but I've always considered a precursor of the movement.


The Film Sufi said...

Thanks for the comment. Yes, the ending is somewhat different, but I think the narrator in the novel is inspired and changed by Zorba's way, even if he doesn't choose a path identical to Zorba's.