Zorba The Greek 1964

The filmed version of Nikolas Kazantakis best­selling novel was directed by Michael Caco­y­annis (who has also filmed versions of Greek clas­sics like Anti­gone and The Trojan Women) and provided a career defining role for veteran Holly­wood actor Anthony Quinn. It was nomin­ated for six Oscars and won three: for art direc­tion, cine­ma­to­graphy and Lila Kedrova’s wonderful supporting role (a taste of which is seen in this clip) as an ageing courtesan.

Zorba was extens­ively nomin­ated for awards on its release, including a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and a Grammy, but it won relat­ively few. Although the ideal of personal freedom it extolled was very much in tune with the sixties zeit­geist, Kazantakis’ special Greek brand of Niet­zchean philo­sophy, coupled with over­tones of miso­gyny, made many western audi­ences uneasy.

Alan Bates plays a middle class intel­lec­tual who takes over a defunct mine in Crete. On the boat there he meets up with the eccentric Zorba (Anthony Quinn) who becomes his busi­ness manager and unof­fi­cial mentor. The Cretans are portrayed as rather a back­ward and inbred community, hostile to all outsiders. This includes a retired cour­tesan called Hortense (Lila Kedrova) who befriends them and, through a misun­der­standing, becomes engaged to marry Zorba.

The main plot of the film is the familar one of the acolyte and guru, with Zorba as an archetypal ‘holy fool’ char­acter slowly bringing the repressed Bates out of his shell and encour­aging him to embrace life and a certain amount of lunacy: ” A man needs a little madness, or … he never dares cut the rope”

A beau­tiful young widow (Irene Pappas) is attracted to Bates and they have one night of passion which results in the suicide of a jealous local youth. The Cretan villa­gers blame her for his death and attack her. Neither Bates nor Zorba manage to protect her and she is killed by the mob. Hortense catches pneu­monia shortly after­wards and she too dies. Zorba’s plans for the mine are like­wise a disaster. With his busi­ness and life ruined, Bates asks Zorba to teach him how to dance.

The uses of Bathos

Kazantakis has Zorba describe women as “poor weak creatures” and two women die in Zorba The Greek, both in a fright­ening and ugly fashion. One is threatened with stoning and then vindict­ively knifed just as the hero is trying to rescue her. (There are no true ‘heroes’ in Zorba, just outsiders pitted against a repressive society.)

The scene of an old woman’s death in this film uses delib­er­ately grot­esque and fright­ening images to create a ‘bathetic’ effect. All the senti­mental attrib­utes of death are brutally stripped away – like the old woman’s posses­sions – leaving nothing but a disreg­arded corpse. A philo­soph­ical point is being made: we leave the world as we come into it and Zorba’s final remark –  “What does it matter? She’s dead” – under­scores it.

The scene shocked western audi­ences but was more readily under­stood by Greeks – if the villa­gers hand’t taken the old women’s posses­sions, the hated Turkish occu­piers would have claimed them. It is also very possible that the shots of the old crones wearing Hortense’s finery were influ­enced by the seminal images in Luis Bunuel’s 1961 film “Viridiana” (which also influ­enced the artwork and title of the Rolling Stone’s 1968 album “Beggar’s Banquet“)

David Clough ©2011

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