Saturday, January 16, 2010

1964 - Zorba the Greek

As promised, I'm going to experiment with a little reader interaction by introducing a poll for you to vote on which awards year I should tackle next. So, during the review of 1964's Best Picture nominees, I will keep said poll on the sidebar to the right and when the time comes to move on, whichever year has the most votes will be selected as the next year of review. (As if you didn't understand how polls work.) To begin with, I've selected five Best Picture races from the 1980s, so choose your favourite and maybe you'll see that race on Matt vs. the Academy in a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, the review of the 1964 race began with a viewing of Best Picture nominee...

Zorba the Greek
Michael Cacoyannis
Michael Cacoyannis
(based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis)
Anthony Quinn, Alan Bates, Irene Papas, Lila Kedrova, Sotiris Moustakas
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
3 wins, including Best Supporting Actress (Lila Kedrova)

Responsible for numerous Greek dancing parodies, Zorba the Greek explores the friendship between an unlikely pair. Basil (Bates) is an uptight English writer who travels to Greece to open a mine on his father's land. On his way, he meets Zorba (Quinn), an enthusiastic - some might say mildly crazy - Greek peasant who persuades Basil to take him along to work on the mine. When on Crete, Zorba attempts to teach Basil to loosen up by encouraging him to pursue a local widow (Papas), while Zorba himself begins an affair with a mad French hotelier (Kedrova).

Perhaps I'm the only one, but I got a distinct spaghetti western feeling when watching Zorba the Greek. Maybe it was the long silences and elongated glares between enemies. Maybe it was the prolific use of the close-up. Or maybe it was just the foreign accents. Whatever the reason, there is something slightly odd about the film. You never entirely understand what's going on. The characters often act incomprehensibly, especially the villagers, who are downright despicable on occasion, stoning a woman for spurious reasons and looting another woman's home while she is dying. A love scene between Basil and the widow seems almost like interpretive dance in its abstractness. Then there's the village idiot, a character so baffling that in order to come up with the right adjective to describe him, I searched an online thesaurus for words synonymous with 'incomprehensible'. The second suggestion offered was the word 'Greek'. Indeed.

Perhaps also it is the range of genres that are attempted here. There are several moments of comedy, sometimes approaching slapstick, combined with a great deal of tragedy. Add a few political themes and other non sequiturs and the result is a bit of a mish-mash.

And yet, through it all, the film is somehow infectious. Especially the famous music, which never fails to lighten the mood. The most infectious element, though, is the title character. Anthony Quinn gives Zorba such an exhilarating passion for life that it is hard not to go along for the ride. His warped wisdom is the source of most of the humour in the film with such gems as, "To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble." There are moments, however, when he seems vaguely threatening, although probably unintentionally. Lila Kedrova, too, is a delight to watch, earning a well-deserved Academy Award for her performance. Her Madame Hortense is intensely exuberant yet deeply heartbreaking. Kedrova and Quinn together (pictured) are a unique force on the screen, creating much amusement.

Keep your earplugs on hand for the most annoying collection of cackling toothless old ladies ever to appear on screen. And in the interests of irrelevant trivia, it is useless to note that in an alphabetical list of every Best Picture nominee, Zorba the Greek comes in last.


  1. I have mixed feelings on this movie. On the one hand, it's a fascinating and gripping story and the acting is top-notch, but the way the female characters are treated in the end is disgusting (and I don't mean the way the villagers acted but the way the movie makers presented it).
    I never understand why people call this a "feel-good"-movie.

  2. Well, here's another film I haven't seen since its theatrical release. Re-watching it was good, but I don't think I would have put this one in the Best Picture run-off for 1964. I still liked the cinematography and Anthony Quinn's earthy passionate performance (has any actor fit into so many different nationality roles with the ease of Quinn?) I got a chance to meet him in 1978 and he is indeed a larger-than-life character.

    Back to the movie, I agree with you Matt that tonally it is all over the place. I felt that after the deaths of their love interests and the catastrophe of the timber transport system, the dancing ending was a bit hard to swallow. Love the music, though.

  3. Great review!

    We're linking to your article for Academy Monday at

    Keep up the good work!