There are classic films, and among them are quintessential classics, the “life list” movies that every film fan has to know to be cineliterate.
Among the latter, I’d list “Lawrence of Arabia,” “La Strada,” “The 400 Blows,” “The French Connection” and “Zorba the Greek,” just for starters.
The fact that three of those star Anthony Quinn suggests the unique quality he brought to almost every performance, from “Viva Zapata” to that late-life/peak Keanu period piece “A Walk in the Clouds.” You watch that mostly-forgotten film and there are moments when Old Man Quinn’s larger than life reputation, presence and playfulness makes Keanu Reeves crack up in what can only have been surprised delight.
We see that look cross Alan Bates‘ face, almost out of character, in Quinn’s greatest leading man turn, as “Zorba the Greek.” Bates, playing a young Brit who has inherited property on the island of Crete, maintains his English reserve, skepticism and general impatience for this working class hustler with his own ideas about work, love, food, wine and telling time. But every now and then, Bates the actor lets a little “Damn, what’s that rascal up to now?” delight peek through his Keep Calm and Don’t Trust the Greek reserve.
“I don’t want any trouble!”
“Life is trouble! Only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and ‘look’ for trouble!”
Quinn’s Zorba is a titanic performance, the very definition of Larger than Life. What critics at the time sometimes wrote off as “hammy” and “over-the-top,” Quinn turned into a brand, cinematic shorthand for Big Characters full of the zest of life. If his turn as Auda Abu Tayi bowled you over in “Lawrence of Arabia” — and it should — Zorba was his zenith.
“Am I not a man? And is a man not stupid? I’m a man, so I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe.”
Quinn cooked up a dance that became a national folk dance of Greece. The movie collected three Oscars and had a good shot at several others. The character, already iconic thanks to the 1946 Nikos Kazatzakis novel, became a U.N. Heritage site thanks to the film.
If you haven’t seen it, you must.
Bates is Basil, a young writer who meets this grinning, gregarious bear of a man while waiting for a rainy passage from the mainland to Crete, where Basil hopes to hole up and write, and maybe re-start an old lignite (crumbly, brown coal) mine on his father’s property.
“Lignite?” Zorba exclaims. Whatever other line of BS he was serving to his new friend, here’s his surest footing. Zorba’s been a soldier, a lover and many other things. Among them? A miner. He will help his new “Boss,” as he labels him. No no, there’ll be no arguing about it. A deal is struck.
Once in this village on this backward, sleepy pre-war island, Zorba will translate, bargain and engineer the mine back to life. He will translate, bargain and half-engineer the boss’s romance with a lonely young widow (Irene Papas), shunned and harassed by the locals.
“God has a very big heart but there is one sin he will not forgive! If a woman calls a man to her bed and he will not go. I know because a very wise old Turk told me.”
Zorba will woo a lonely older widow (Oscar winner Lila Kedrova) himself.
“If a woman sleeps alone, it puts a shame on all men.”
And he’ll translate, bargain and engineer Basil into a new way of living life.
“Do you dance, boss? Dance?”
We remember the iconic music, by Mikis Theodorakis, a tune that turned into a Greek cliche. We can’t forget the dance. We quote the faux profundities that remind us of what “a man’s world” used to be, toxic as it was. We fall into the Oscar-winning black and white cinematography of Walter Lassally. Maybe we don’t give a lot of thought to the direction of Michael Cacoyannis, who had a mostly-indifferent career aside from this classic.
But rewatching the film anew, I found myself lost in the stunning, Oscar-winning production design of Vasilis Fotopoulos. His work takes us to a Greece and a Crete long gone, poor and primitive and run down, and yet “unspoiled” by the tourism this movie and later EU membership and investment generated.
It’s a stark world of stunted trees, rocky ground and rain, a sleepy village with all the universal foibles, failings and human miseries and joys and possibilities on display. And even though there’s a writer present, only Alexis Zorba truly sees it.
The best way to come to “Zorba” is the way I did, through a friend, somebody who sees The Greek as a role model, a guide to the Well Lived Life, rich or poor, somebody who truly “sees it.”
So I’m telling you, as your friend, you need to track this down. It used to be hard to come by — a film society showing here, an old movies TV channel screening there. That’s not the case any more.
If you haven’t seen “Zorba the Greek,” you’ll never be more than a film “buff.” Cacoyannis, Kazantzakis, Fotopoulos and Anthony Quinn put on a graduate school seminar in “cinephile, how to become one” with this, one of the greatest films ever made.
Rating: unrated, violence, adult themes
Cast: Anthony Quinn, Alan Bates, Irene Papas, Lila Kedrova
Credits: Scripted and directed by Michael Cacoyannis, based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. A Twentieth Century Fox release on Movies!, Netflix, Amazon, other streamers
Running time: 2:22