Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis

Anthony Quinn & Alan Bates. Image: cordmagazine.com

Having written about Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of the novel Zorba the Greek, quite a bit recently I thought I’d watch the 1964 film again to see if it still has the same effect on me when I first saw it back in 1965. It does.

Of course Nikos Kazantzakis never saw the film, dying in 1957, but he did meet the film’s Greek-Cypriot director, Michael Cacoyannis, in London in 1946 when Michael was studying to become a theatre and film director at the same time working for the BBC as director of their Cypriot radio broadcasts. As a great fan of the Cretan novelist, Cacoyannis commissioned Kazantzakis to write and broadcast ten radio talks. The fee for the talks enabled Nikos and his wife Helen to remain living in Paris, which was then at the heart of a literary and philosophical revolution. It was probably Helen — after Nikos’s death, and the publication of Zorba the Greek in 1961 — that suggested Cacoyannis film Zorba? It was a nice payback.

It was also the chance the forty-two-year-old Cacoyannis needed to make a film that might give him the international profile his talent deserved.

Cacoyannis had already directed seven films before Zorba (he would make another eight after), with the majority set in Greece, but it was the Kazantzakis project that made his name as a director with a fine eye for detail, and the ability to express a cornucopia of conflicting emotions, all of which are there in Kazantzakis’s brilliant novel.

He would of course get help from a handful of great actors, not least Irene Papas, Lila Kedrova, George Foundas, and not least a young Alan Bates who plays straight man to the extraordinary Anthony Quinn, whose Alexis Zorba is both an exasperating and hugely loveable character.

Filmed in Crete — Kazantzakis’s homeland — the film centres on a small impoverished post-war village sitting close to the sea and beneath a mountain inside which sits an old unused mine left to Alan Bates’ character Basil (a writer whose father is English and mother Greek) by a recently deceased uncle. It’s Basil’s desire to get the mine working again, but how he has no idea.

Meeting Zorba in a smoke-filled and steamy café in a run down ferry port on the Greek mainland, Basil, our writer and aspiring mine owner, allows himself to be persuaded by Zorba — who insists he is a mining expert — that he, Zorba, be ‘permitted’ to go with the writer to Crete.

After much laughter and cajoling from Zorba, and many drinks paid for by the writer, it is reluctantly agreed that Alexis Zorba can accompany Basil, if only to reduce the amount of money being spent on rum and tobacco.

Those often chaotic opening scenes (filmed in heavy rain) are, in my view, as close as any director has ever come to presenting the opening sequence of a novel in cinematic form as originally written in the novel; but then Kazantzakis was as much a poet as novelist, who wrote with the visual very much to the fore: a gift for a film maker.

Of course Zorba was made at a time when British actors and films were enjoying something of a renaissance, hence no doubt the employment of Alan Bates who’d had great success in the early 1960s with such films as The Running Man, Whistle Down The Wind, and A Kind of Loving. And although Zorba is not a British film it often has the feel and look of one, not least in the way Cacoyannis allows the camera to linger on a scene, with gritty facial close-ups wonderfully revealing in their black and white intensity.

There can be no doubt the time the director spent learning his trade in Britain after World War II obviously left its mark (he was certainly influenced by the likes of Powell and Pressburger and David Lean), and when coupled together with his Greek sense of what we might call cinematic theogony— of which he was a master — the result is a wholly compelling piece of work.

It has to be said that there are one or two brief moments when Alan Bates looks rather vulnerable, especially when Quinn is in a real groove, but then Basil would probably have felt the same.

One gets the feeling that Cacoyannis didn’t bother with repeated takes, often just allowing the actors to get on with things, which Anthony Quinn naturally makes the most of: always filling the screen with his inherent power and versatility, often moving like a ballet dancer, especially in the superb and tender scenes with Lila Kedrova’s fading Parisienne singer, Madame Hortense, left in Crete by the multi-national peace keeping force of so many years before, now running the very faded Hotel Ritz in the very faded village under the mountain. Their scenes together are memorable and magical, and, at her death, tragic. Lila deserved her Oscar.

With her death the impoverished villagers ransack her hotel, stripping it bare within minutes, leaving Madame Hortense dead upon her bed, with just Zorba to kiss her goodbye.

Lila Kedrova. Image: cinemagumbo.squarespace.com

Irene Papas plays the young sacrificial Widow with an intensity that is almost unbearable, even more so because she has few words. She represents the rise of modern Greece of course, a modernity that is deeply resented by the other, older villagers (and aped by some of the children) and must therefore be killed at the alter of envy, ignorance and fear, which is always a bold theme in Kazantzakis’ work, brought out with an alarming sense of menace in this film: menace laced with the inability of Basil to help defend the widow (his lover of the night before) when confronted by the jeering mob in front of the church as a service takes place. An alarmed Basil does send for Zorba, who faces down the mob. But when he begins to lead the Widow to safety Mavrandoni (played by George Foundas) grabs the Widow and slits her throat. It totally wrong foots the audience and is vicious. Only her ‘servant’ Mimithos (Sitiros Moustakas) stays to mourn her.

Irene Papas & George Foundas. Image: Daily Mail

Life then goes on as if nothing has changed, with men from the village and the local monastery putting the finishing touches to a kind of zip wire (designed by Zorba) to carry tree trunks from the forest half way up the mountain down to the mine to reinforce the mine shafts and get the mine back in operation and bring some prosperity to the village. All goes well at first until a swinging tree trunk hits the zip wire’s wooden frame at speed bringing the whole set-up crashing down. It is another sort of sacrifice.

The villagers and monks have fled in fear leaving Zorba and Basil alone to drink the wine and eat the symbolic roasted lamb ( a kind of last supper)and then dance on the beach as the camera pulls away.

They are as they were when they first met. But everything has changed.

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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