Due to the length of the feature film (2 hours, 22 minutes) Kevin decided to forgo a short and jump straight to the feature presentation: Zorba the Greek. Zorba was directed by Mihalis Kakogiannis, whose other work has probably escaped you (it has me), but was written by Nikos Kazantzakis, who was also responsible for The Last Temptation of Christ, which you’ve probably heard of.
The film begins with Basil, an uptight English writer, traveling to Crete (where he has inherited some property) in the hopes of getting through some writer’s block. Basil’s final boat to Crete is delayed by weather and while awaiting its departure he is accosted by Alexis Zorba, who is best described by the Monty Python Sir Galahad’s pithy, “What a strange person!”. Zorba is played impeccably by the decidedly not-Greek Anthony Quinn, who pulls it off anyway.
Basil is just plain too polite and British to tell the exuberant Zorba to buzz off, and for a film that’s not a true tragedy, his Britishness really is the nearest thing he has to a fatal flaw. Basil eventually lets drop in conversation that he has inherited property with a lignite mine (hooray for crappy coal!) and that he’s hoping to make it profitable. Coincidentally, Zorba has extensive experience working in coal mines. Or perhaps as a confidence man. Yeah, probably as a confidence man.
Basil, knowing that we’ve still got two hours and seven minutes left in a movie named after this character, fortunately decides on impulse to bring Zorba along to help him with his business dealings. And Zorba, he seems to do his best, but for the most part he seems to help Basil in his introductions to the carefree Cretan lifestyle.
Zorba kicks off an exhorbitant love affair with the aging four-time French widow Madame Hortense, who owns a hotel in the Cretan village where they are based. At the same time, he encourages the Britishly shy Basil to pursue a young and unnamed local widow.
The widow has a history of scorning any and all comers, including one particular young man of the village who is outwardly wooing her. But Zorba tells Basil that it’s clear that she would totally go for him. It takes some constant encouragement. He’s British, after all.
In the meantime, Basil and Zorba briefly get busy on the coal mine. Of course, it turns out that the wood in the shaft supports is as rotten as my understanding of what to call shaft supports in coal mines, and the whole thing caves in on Zorba, who nonchalantly makes his way out. Zorba is completely honey-badger about the whole situation. He can absorb a lot of pain.
Zorba comes up with a brilliant plan that involves befriending the monks who live in the monastery high up the steep hill, and to use this friendship to gain access to their forest, where the trees could be harvested, sent down an elaborate raised cable line, and used to brace the mine. True to his word, Zorba gains the friendship of the monks and access to the trees, and he next sets off to the big city to get cable and other supplies that can’t be had in the village. And true to Madame Hortense’s fears, he tarries in the big city because he has hooked up with a very young and beautiful waitress – because he can.
Basil, Britishly off-put by Zorba’s unexpected and irresponsible delays and unable to deal with the miserable Madame begging him to read Zorba’s letter (detailing his new love affair) to her, does the only thing he could do – lies his ass off. He goes so far as to pretend that Zorba has told him in confidence that he will be proposing marriage to the Madame as soon as he returns. Ha ha, Zorba, the joke’s on you!
At this point, the elements of tragedy which do exist in the film start to come through.
Basil finally gets up the oysters to approach the widow, which results in an incredibly easy tryst. Normally this sort of thing is happy news, but when the young man who is wooing her finds out, he drowns himself in the sea in shame. And the village naturally blames the widow and is bent on revenge – it’s been a while since there’s been a nice stoning on the island. But just when you think the strong and charismatic Zorba has saved her, a villager sneaks up behind her and slits her throat. Zorba? Well, he pretty much honey-badgers that, too. You know, these things happen.
Then Madame Hortense, with whom he has carried out his Basil-manipulated marriage vows, falls sick and dies. These things happen too.
And while it’s sad and all, Zorba’s tree transporter is finally ready, and pockets are about to be flush with cash. But the first log comes down the mountainside a bit quick, and the crowd narrowly avoids disaster. Perhaps one might imagine that the braking system on the cable isn’t quite up to snuff and that a redesign is in order, but Zorba calls for the second log – which topples and destroys the entire mechanism.
Basil is ruined. His response? Be like Zorba. They dance the Greek dance of Financial Disaster and Not Giving a Damn, and the movie ends, in the midst of the ruin of everything, on a happy note. We are alive, what else matters?
Overall, Zorba the Greek isn’t going to make my list of favorite movies ever, but it was enjoyable (if a bit strange in tone throughout). It does give a bit of a heavy-handed treatment to the local cretins (Cretans?), who are depicted as lazy, generally unintelligent, and bloodthirsty. Amazingly , the murder of the widow stands out as only the second-most disturbing depiction of the Cretan locals, as the cake is really taken by the greedy town crones who vulture Madame Hortense’s house in their mourning garb disguise. As soon as she dies, they rage through the house like Harpies, stripping it bare of any even semi-valuable item. I dare you to watch the scene and ever forget it.
But I know that other people do love the life-affirming message of the film. I mean, would you really do this for a movie you thought was just OK?