Movie Critique Alexis Zorbas

Antonis Papantoniou 19 November 2009 Anthropology 263g Alexis Zorbas: the man who has enough fight in him to devour the world. Many film attempts have been made aiming to portray the abundance of life within a man on the cinema screen. One of the most successful ones would be “Zorba the Greek” (1964), directed by Michael Cacoyannis and with Anthony Quinn as the leading role. The plot of the movie originated form the novel “Zorbas The Greek” by Nikos Kazantzakis, that was first published in 1946. The film portrays the culture of the time in Greece, and more specifically the culture of Crete, the largest Greek island, where the plot unfolds. Zorbas t he Greek” successfully depicts situations of extreme anger, sadness, lust and joy that conquer humans during their course in life. Alexis Zorbas reactions to such feelings define the movie and give the viewers a diachronic sense of admiration and amazement towards the main character. “Zorbas the Greek” is a social drama whose plot focuses in the friendship of Alexis Zorbas, a Greek middle aged man of mysterious past, and Basil, a half-English half-Greek writer who has been raised in Great Britain and has all the characteristics of an edgy, middle-class Englishman.
The story begins at the port of Piraeus when Basil is trying to get on a ship to Crete, where he owns some land and an old mine, which he wishes to revive. While in the port, Basil meets Zorbas. Zorbas with a peculiar way attaches himself to Basil and asks him for a job, listing all his “qualifications” from past occupations such as miner, cook and santuri player (Cretan musical instrument). Basil is intrigued by the character of Zorbas and agrees to take him along as his right-hand. Together they arrive at Crete where they stay at an old French widow’s house and later on move in at Basil’s land and start operating the mine.
Throughout the story Zorbas is the person in charge of the mine and has several ideas for improving the mining process with the purpose of making more money. Basil seems to trust Zorbas and supports his ideas. But Zorbas ideas and “practical approach” prove disastrous – at the end this “collaboration” leads to the demise of the mine and everything they have worked for. The story ends with the separation of Zorbas and Basil with no hard feelings left behind. Zorbas takes his own way and Basil returns back to London having his character greatly influenced through the experiences he shared with Zorbas in Crete. Zorbas the Greek” should be seen in the context of the Greek/Cretan history and culture at the time. Crete had just been gained its independence from the Ottoman rule and joined Greece (1913). The French, Russians, Italians and British were generally helping Greece gain its independence from the Ottomans. However Cretans viewed newcomer foreigners as “outsiders” and generally alienated them. Furthermore the citizens of Crete had a notion of self-justice and a sense of self-instituted law.

Throughout the film there are several violent events that take place but there is no involvement of police or any form of public officers. Basil, who is considered a “foreigner” despite being half-Cretan, at some point holds a love affair with a lonely young widow (played by Irene Papas). She is brave, beautiful and, most importantly, independent. The men of the village despise her because according to Zorbas “they all want her, but no one can have her”. Such a statement was unheard of in a strongly patriarchic society such as Crete.
When this relation between the foreigner and the widow was revealed, a young local boy who loved the widow and was trying to marry her was so devastated that committed suicide. The male population of the village was full of anger and jealousy so it took action. The widow was marked as a traitor and was publically lynched despite the attempts of Zorba to protect her. This incident to the viewer may be seen as meanness and ignorance on the part of the people of the village, however it was quite common at the time to bestow such judgments to the women who didn’t follow communal rules. M.
Cacoyannis, staged this event with realism and intensity that transfers to the viewer the agony of this woman and the gruesomeness of the actions against her. Fast paced music is played during the scene, and the men of the village chase the widow for several minutes in a manner that can be compared to the way many cats chase a mouse. The only voices that are heard are the agonizing small shouts of the widow and the fast paced footsteps of her pursuers. The faces of the villagers are almost without emotion and when they finally trap the woman there is no hesitation in their actions.
The only man who tries to oppose the intended murder is Zorbas. Through his determination he manages to stop momentarily the flow of villagers violent actions. Nevertheless he ultimately failed as the widow was murdered in a cold-blooded manner right in front of her lover’s eyes. This event depicts an aspect of Zorbas character, the bravery to “swim against the flow”. Unlike his friend and employer, Basil, he didn’t cower behind the crowd in fear of the potential reactions to his actions. Instead he stepped up against the mob and defended the justice he believed in.
Nonetheless he did not mourn the deceased, nor did he mention the event again. In the film M. Cacoyannis touches the subject of death with a rather unconventional manner for the time. The subject of death is brought up in two occasions within the film. The first is with the death of Basil’s lover, the widow, and the second is with the death of Zorbas lover. When Zorbas and Basil first arrived at Crete they stayed at Madame Hortense’s hotel. Madame Hortense was a French woman who arrived at Crete with the French military after the end of the Othman rule.
Within the film she claimed to be the lover not only of the French Admiral but also of the Russian, Italian and English Admirals. The fact that she was French and had multiple lovers was unheard of at Crete, and as a result she was the mocked and alienated by the village. After the departure of the European forces Madame Hortense was left alone back in Crete. In order to survive she created her own version of the famous French hotel, “Hotel Rich”, which was nothing more than a run-down house. At that hotel Zorbas decided to stay after arriving to Crete and soon he established intimate relationships with his hostess.
Madame Hortense as presented from M. Cacoyannis arouses negative feelings to the viewers sometimes almost reaching disgust. She is viewed as a relic of the past always reminiscing about her Admirals and considering herself charming and irresistible. Zorbas quickly recognizes that aspect of her character; yet he maintains their relationship claiming “It is a shame to every man if a woman sleeps alone at night”. Through a misunderstanding Madame Hortense misinterprets that Zorbas wants to marry her while he had no intention to.
Zorbas was not very affectionate about Madame Hortense, since he was badmouthing her when she wasn’t around, and cheating on her with other women. However when he learned about the misunderstanding he decided to marry her for the sole purpose of making her happy. Shortly after the marriage Madame Hortense became ill and died. The village people “celebrated” this event by stripping her house from all her possessions. The older women of the village are presented almost as vultures waiting for the pending death of the victim.
Just about she was to die they rushed in and started stealing all the valuable objects from the hotel. Zorbas disgusted by this behavior he tried to stop it as long Hortnese was still alive, and until the end he stayed by her side acting as a loving husband and keeping her company at the last moments of her life. Through this event the viewer understands an unknown until then aspect of Zorbas character, his immense kindness. With no apparent self-profit he selflessly tried to preserve Madame Hortense happiness by agreeing to marry her and staying with her until the end.
However after the death of Madame Hortense he refuses neither to mourn her nor to take any actions to protect her possessions or her reputation. He steps out of the room letting the villagers take her possessions and he does not bother with funeral arrangements or other religious rituals. His views on death were openly opposing the ones of Orthodox religion and church that believed in Hell, Paradise and Judgment day, he simply stated “All people have one thing in common, in the end they all become food for worms. Along with the views on death, in the film M. Cacoyannis somehow mocks the Greek Religion and church. Before discussing the matter of Religion within the film, one must understand the importance of the Church for Greece at the time. As mentioned before Greece was released by the Othman rule and greatly influence by the major European forces. Within this chaos of different cultures interfering with the Greek culture, the Greeks struggled to maintain their identity and preserve their culture on which they take great pride in.
Many actions were made such as an attempt of purification of the Greek language through the extraction of all the foreign words and creating a new dialect named “Katharevousa” which is rarely used in the film. Along with other actions a great power and land was given to the Greek Orthodox church, supporting the Christian religion which was much different than the Muslim religion, the one that Othmans believed in and thus enhancing the ethnic identity of the Greek population. In the film the Church appears as the owner of a big mountain that Zorbas wanted to exploit in order to support the lumber needs of the mine.
When he suggests his idea to Basil he is shocked and refuses by saying that he will be subjected to the accusation of theft, when trying to convince him Zorbas states that “This land belongs to the church, the church belongs to God and God belongs to everyone thus everybody can take their share of the land”. While arguing with Basil, Zorbas maintains a mocking tone when referring to the church and God, however in the end he agrees to “cut a deal with them”. The first meeting of the Church’s monks and Zorbas happened by chance in the mountain forest.
Knowing their gullibility Zorbas deceives them into initially believing that he is a devil, and then in secrecy he replaced some water with wine. The priests believed the apparent miracle, that was incredibly similar to the one Jesus performed, and so viewed Zorbas as a blessed person. They drank the wine with him until they were completely drunk and so Zorbas gained their friendship and his desired access to the mountain trees. Further appearance of the priests in the movie was almost in a comical manner; either being a target of Zorbas mockery, or cowards running away from some falling trees while praying to God.
This presentation of the Church by M. Cacoyannis is quite contrevential to society’s image of the church at the time. The priests who were considered wise and virtuous figures within the society were portrayed as gullible drunks who were easily manipulated, and thus within the film the powerful image of the church was completely crumbled. One of the most dominant themes in the film is the contrast between the Apollonian and Dionysian way of life. Basil representing the Apollonian way of life is the personification of order and rationality.
On the other hand Zorbas represents the Dionysian way of life with an ecstatic spirit and spontaneity in his actions, which provide him an undying will to live. Zorbas philosophy of life is constantly depicted in the movie. When he first meets with Basil and convinces him to work together he sets only one condition; that while he dances and plays the santury(a traditional Greek music instrument) he is on his own, he is free. M. Cacoyannis portrays Zorbas character through the frantic traditional Greek dance that Zorbas starts when his emotions are overflowing.
The fist dance happens when Basil approves the plan of Zorbas in order to improve the mine. Zorbas filled with happiness unties his tie, unbuttons his shirt gets on an empty table and starts dancing. When his feet start to move traditional Greek music starts playing, in the beginning slow passed and as times goes by it becomes incredibly fast as Zorbas reaches his dance climax. The camera shifts very vigorously from his face to his feet and again to his face and transfers the feeling of frenzy to the viewer. The dance goes on until Basil confused stops him and Zorbas collapses from exhaustion.
Basil’s character as acted by Alan Bates is presented as a weak bookworm who has no great aspirations for his future. He rarely laughs and shows no desire to grab the opportunities life offers him. Throughout the film the contrast of their characters is constantly being depicted. When Zorbas describes to Basil his plans for life and his dreams of becoming rich along with him, Basil is greatly intimidated and cuts of Zorbas by saying, “aren’t you going a bit to fast? ” Zorbas answer to this question is well in line with his Dionysian way of life.
He states with great vigor that “I’m to old to be going slow, people say that as a person ages his will to live goes away, that he opens the door and welcomes death. That’s a big pack of lies, I have enough fight in me to devour the whole world”. As expected, Zorbas influence on Basil’s character is becoming rather obvious throughout the film. From a passive manner of life Basil starts desiring things from life and after several prompts from Zorbas he decides to take the first step in creating a relationship between him and the village widow.
As the story unfolds Basil starts laughing more and more and attempts to dance in the same manner as Zorbas does. His timid way of dancing in the beginning is accompanied by slow Greek music that is constantly interrupted by the missteps in Basils dance. The complete transformation of Basil’s way of life is viewed at the final scene of the movie, where after the disaster of Zorbas plans, instead of being angry he decides the next course of his life, laughs, and dances magnificently along with Zorbas by the Aegean Sea. The final theme of the movie is about the ability of humans to cope with failure.
The film is full of failures; failure of Basil to protect his lover, failure of Zorbas to revive the mine, and finally the greater failure, the disaster of the project to bring down lumber from the mountain. This project was financed by the last money of Basil and designed by Zorbas. The trees were supposed to be transferred from the top of the mountain to the bottom with the help of a large construction. At the first demonstration of the project, the construction is destroyed to the point that nothing was standing anymore.
The crowd that was observing quickly dispersed and all that was left in the scenery was Zorbas and Basil watching their failed investment. Nevertheless they both sit down by the already prepared celebration fire, eat their lunch without frustration or negative emotions. They both discuss their future plans as nothing has happened. They decide to separate and they have one of the most affectionate conversations that are present within the film. Finally they both get up and dance by the ruins of their failure hopping for the best and aiming for a better future.
The film’s setting, Crete, is realistically depicted throughout the film and the Cretan culture is represented very accurately. The plot unfolds in a remote village of Crete close to the major city of Chania. M. Cacoyannis tries to express the Greek culture not through Zorbas but through the people in the village that have secondary role to the plot. The clothing of the male citizens was usually black representing their masculinity, and their forehead was covered with a traditional black cloth, which made them look even more aggressive.
The majority of the male citizens carried daggers, a weapon that until today is considered, by the Cretans, to represent honor and bravery. The murder of the young widow is done with the use of a dagger, since it was considered an act that would reinstate the village’s honor. In the progress of the film no young woman except Irini Papas is presented, this may be the way of M. Cacoyannis to emphasize the power of the male population in the village of Crete. Nevertheless many elder women are seen through the course of the movie, all of them presented with ugly and selfish personalities.
All the Greek women on the film wear black clothes that cover most of their body. This clothing in the Greek culture represents the grief of a widowed woman, and in the past widows in Greece where forced to dress like this for the rest of their life. On the other hand men did not have to change their lifestyle in any way after the death of their wife, this again signifies the difference of power between men and women in the Cretan society. The events that are described in the film as mentioned before are a few decades after the liberty of Crete from the Othman domination. Since then many events have transformed Crete’s culture.
With Greece’s entry to the European Union at 1981, western influences started stirring Crete’s culture. The clothes, which are commonly worn in the film, have now become almost extinct and are only used occasionally in traditional events such as marriages. Tourism, which was considered a rare occasion among the villagers, has flourished in Greece since the 1970’s. Ironically “Zorbas the Greek” and its success in the movie theaters was a great contributor to this radical increase in tourism. Today tourism is one of the most profiting industries in Greece, and no part of the country has remained unaffected, and Crete is no exception.
The standing’s in society between women and men have become today almost equal, and the action of alienating foreigners has completely disappeared. However some things have not yet changed through the years. Cretan’s have still the same sense of honor and pride, and especially in the villages native Cretan’s continue to institute their self-instituted justice. Daggers continue to be a method of solving disputes, and feuds between families can continue for many generations, and occasionally have a morbid conclusion. The influence of the Orthodox Church on the community has also been decreased in the past decades.
The Church is still extremely wealthy, however parts of the land have been returned to the Greek State, and Greek communities have become much less religious over the years. It can be said that the community and culture that Zorbas lived in has been almost completely transformed and become unrecognizable at the 21st century. It is crucial to mention however that throughout the film Zorbas shows no attachments to that specific culture or any culture. He is presented as a man with his own culture that has lots of experience from traveling the world and can adapt himself in any situation that occurs.
That is one of the factors that make him a diachronic character. “Zorbas the Greek” is a film that depicts the Greek culture in its transition from being influence by the East to being influenced by the West. The film itself was a turning point for Greece since it was one of the big factors that attracted tourism to the country. Nevertheless the differences in cultures and the audience of the movie have not changed its diachronic messages that are represented through the friendship and characters of Zorbas and Basil.
The need to combine the Apollonian and Dionysian state of mind, to laugh at the misfortunes and failures that emerge in life and fight through them with vigor and the ability to dream. These are just some of the philosophies that are promoted through the film, and perhaps the 21st century is when they are needed the most. Maybe along with some madness because as Zorbas mentioned at the final scene of the movie: “ A man needs some madness, or else he dare not to cut the rope and be free”. ——————————————- [ 1 ]. “Crete History: A description of history of Crete, Greece . ” 1. Web. 19 Nov 2009. . [ 2 ]. “The Greek Language Controversy . ” Focus on Language (2000): 1. Web. 19 Nov 2009. [ 3 ]. Kreis, Steven. “Nietzsche, Dionysos and Apollo. ” (2000): 1. Web. 19 Nov 2009. . [ 4 ]. Lanz, Barbara. “Mourning Dress . ” Social Expression of Grief by Barbara Lanz. (1983): 1. Web. 19 Nov 2009. . [ 5 ]. ” One dead, many hurt in Cretan family feud Dress . ” Ekathimerini (2009): 1. Web. 19 Nov 2009. .

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