Written by: Michael Cacoyannis, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis
Directed by: Michael Cacoyannis
Starring: Anthony Quinn, Alan Bates, Irene Papas, Lila Kedrova
- Running audio commentary by director Cacoyannis and Kazantzakis expert Demetrios Liappas
- Alternate introduction
- Biography episode: “Anthony Quinn: A Lust For Life”
- Two Movietone News Newsreels
- Behind the Scenes still gallery
- Theatrical trailer
Released by: Fox
My Advice: Rent it
[ad#longpost]Basil (Bates) is suffering from the writer’s worst affliction, writer’s block. To have a change of scene and maybe earn some extra cash, he going to reopen his father’s mine on the island of Crete. On the way, he meets an exuberant Greek named Zorba (Quinn). Where Basil is refined and reserved, Zorba is crude and companionable. Despite, or because, of their contradictory natures, there is an instant connection and when Zorba mentions expertise in mining, Basil invites him to Crete. Zorba works hard and plays even harder with the hotel manageress, Madame Hortense (Kedrova), a faded but still passionate beauty. While Zorba is enjoying himself, he may have some trouble because Madame Hortense is falling hard for him. Basil is also having his own troubles when he attracts the attention of a young widow (Papas) who is the object of desire for every eligible bachelor in the village. Basil is slowly coming around to Zorba’s philosophy of embracing life, even when it gives you tragedy or farce. So enjoy the dance with Zorba the Greek.
This movie, like life, is hard to classify. There are comedic moments, but this is not a comedy. The are moments of sadness, but the movie has a uplifting message at its heart. Zorba seems to be an incurable romantic, but there are moments of loveless unhappiness. For some, all this could be a mess. But like a life well lived, this movie is to be enjoyed with all the pains and pleasures involved. Quinn is legendary in this role; he becomes an avatar for passion and vivacity and joie de vivre. Quinn’s portrayal is so intense even when Zorba is quietly advising Basil on the desirous widow, the movie suffers when he’s not on screen. Bates showing the audience that reserved English manner on the outside, and his struggling to break free is quite good, but it needs Zorba’s outrageousness to put it in proper relief. When they are together, the opposing natures balance out and create some memorable scenes.
Praise must be given to the women of the piece. Kedrova’s Hortense lives in the past when many loved her but she never seems lost in the past like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations or Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. She doesn’t think of the future until she meets Zorba. And Papas’ widow is all defiant strength, unwilling to go into a loveless marriage simply because the village wants it. She sees the kindness in Basil and responses to his hesitant charm. Even though her character says very little, everything is communicated in her eyes and body. Few actresses can achieve that level of performance. It is the actors that truly make this movie a classic.
As with others in the Fox Studio Classics line, there are plenty of special features to peruse. There is a still gallery featuring some behind the scene shots and footage of the movie’s premiere and at the Oscar ceremony. We also have a Biography episode on Quinn. The episode shows how much Quinn had in common with Zorba, even though Quinn is of Mexican/Irish descent. Also included is an alternate beginning to the movie, with Zorba as a God who is too kindhearted to send any soul to Hell. It’s interesting to see the different approaches the director was trying out.
The main feature is the commentary by the director and Demetrios Liappas, a professor of Modern Greek Literature. The commentary does not focus solely on the movie; there is discussion of the author Kazantzakis and his work, the director’s own experiences making movies in Hollywood and Greece, and the historical and cultural context for the film. While some who wanted a technical commentary might believe it meanders into tangents, you do get a more rounded feel for the movie, the people involved in it, and the culture that produced this story.
While Zorba the Greek is considered a cinema classic, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you like the film, you may find your decision pushed over into the green by the amount of special features. I recommend renting it first then and making your decision.