Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis (who also wrote The Last Temptation of Christ), this is Michael Cacoyannis’s best known of the 15 films the Greek director made. And of his 167 credits, the role of Zorba the Greek is the one for which Anthony Quinn is best known–indeed, some have said, that he was born to play. (Though one would have to add the strong man Zampano in Federico Fellini’s La Srada as well.) Quinn’s larger than life portrayal of the dynamic Zorba is greatly enhanced by the music of composer Mikis Theodorakis. Alan Bates underplays just right the role of the shy English-Greek Basil so that his eventual blossoming under the influence of his gregarious companion is appreciated all the more.
In a Greek seaport Alexis Zorba attaches himself to Basil, a shy, bookish Englishman. Basil, who is traveling to Crete to open a mine he has inherited, reluctantly hires Zorba to supervise the operation. The two men could not be more different–Zorba, outgoing and exuberant: Basil, reserved, preferring to observe rather than to enter into life. The islanders welcome the pair, as they badly need the employment that a successful mining operation would bring. The two are put up at the hotel run by Madame Hortense, an aging French courtesan who loves to reminisce about her past love affairs.
Zorba sets out to implement a plan to bring down from the distant mountain the timber needed to shore up the mineshaft. A monastery owns the timberland, so Zorba resorts to some unorthodox tactics to persuade the superstitious monks to agree to sell the trees. In addition, seeing that Boss, as he calls Basil, is attracted to a beautiful widow, he sets out to be matchmaker as well. Boss is too shy to openly court the woman, so Zorba figures that he needs some extra help. Unfortunately, the weak son of one of the villagers has been pining away for the widow. She has scornfully rejected his advances, but the man will not accept No. The triangle leads to a tragic disaster after the suitor spies Basil coming away from a night spent with the widow.
Zorba’s actions are often disturbing to his placid boss. First, his bursting forth into wild dancing when he is happy or sad to, as he puts it, the point of “bursting.” And second, when he persuades Boss into allowing him to go into a distant city to purchase supplies for the mine. Zorba overstays his visit, spending most of the money on women and drink, rather than on the supplies. Upset, Basil tells Madame Hortense, who has been attracted to the exuberant Greek, that Zorba intends to propose to her.
This stirring film is enhanced by a great musical score by Mikis Theodorakis that has the power to draw us out of our chairs and join in the dance of life which it so aptly celebrates. And for actor Anthony Quinn, this is the role of a lifetime, forever marking him–a role he reprised in the Broadway adaptation. Zorba is an intriguing, very flawed Christ figure who has a transforming effect on his reticent boss, drawing him from his detachment into a lively participation in the joys and the sorrows of life. It is a film that is so good that you might want to return to it again and again to soak up its passion and joy.
Themes: Zest for Life; the Dance of Life; “Madness;” Crucifixion & Resurrection; Christ figure.
Rated: Not rated. Content rating (based on 1-10): Violence 4; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 4) Released: 1964 Length: 142 minutes
Director: Michael Cacayannis. Writer: Michael Cacayannis, based on novel by Nikos Kazantzakis
Characters & Cast:
Alexis Zorba–Anthony Quinn;
Madame Hortense–Lila Kedrova
The Widow–Irene Papas.
Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
For everything there is a season,
and a time for every matter under heaven…
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance…
Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
To live is to dance; to dance is to live!
Snoopy, in Peanuts
1. The film was shot in black and white. Would Ted Turner’s colorization add to or detract from it? Why, or why not? How is the starkness of the villagers and their lives enhanced by the filmmaker’s choice?
2. Compare the character of Basil and Zorba. Which would rather read a travel book about a distant country difficult to reach, and which would prefer to travel there, no matter how dangerous? What did you think of Zorba’s bald & bold approach to Basil in the cafe?
3. How does Basil react to Zorba when the latter breaks into his wild, feverish dance? Why does he yell to Zorba to stop? What do you think of Zorba’s explanation of why he must dance? How is the dance an appropriate response to, or expression of, sorrow as well as to joy? Can it thus be a sign of belief in Resurrection?
4. What does Zorba’s behavior when he goes away to the city reveal about his character? Not exactly a stained-glass saint, is he? What do you think of the Boss’s telling Madame Hortense that Zorba intends to marry her? Similar to tricky Jacob’s being tricked by his Uncle Laban in the matter of obtaining the hand of the latter’s daughter Rachel? (See Genesis 29.)
5. Did you expect the Boss’s romance with the widow to turn out as it did? How does the incident show the contrast between his and the islanders’ culture? In fact, how is his view of women different from Zorba’s? Do you think that the author’s not even giving the first name of the widow also a reflection of that culture? What roles does this ancient culture assign to women?
6. When he returns, how is Zorba’s going through with the marriage to Madame Hortense an act of grace? How does he show his love for her during her illness? What does the scene in which the village women wait for her death reveal about their situation and their culture? (Note: the government would have confiscated her estate if the women had not acted immediately.)
7. What do you think of the way Zorba obtains permission from the monks who own the timber? Another example of his resourcefulness?
8. Zorba tells Boss, “I like you too much not to tell you. You’ve got everything, except one thing–madness. A man needs a little madness, or else, he never dares cut the rope and be free.” What do you think Zorba means by “madness”? How is his dancing an expression of this madness? Note that in the 3rd chapter of Mark (and only there, this apparently being too touchy a topic for the other gospel writers!) even Jesus family thinks their strangely acting relative is “mad,” and they set out to seize him, apparently intending to bring him back home where they can keep a close watch on him.
9. Do you feel your life to be free, like Zorba’s? What “ropes” do you see binding yourself or others? Some possible “ropes”: prejudice; attachment to wealth; pursuit of beauty or popularity; conventions/customs of family and the larger society; views/beliefs relating to gender; bad habits. How does Christ’s words, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” apply here? (See John 8:32.)
10. How are the destruction of Zorba’s trestle, and the resulting collapse of their plans to open the mine, a form of crucifixion? Why or how is Zorba able to laugh at the disaster? Would you say that such laughter is a sign of resurrection? What effect does this have on Boss? How did you feel when he finally says, “Zorba, teach me to dance?” How did you feel during the climax as the two men danced on the beach? Why a beach? Water; our origins; cleansing; the beginning of a new life (baptism)?
11. When or how did someone “teach” you to dance? If not dance, what healing forms) of “madness” do you indulge yourself?
12. Some films with similar themes of life and a “dance” attitude toward it”
Bagdad Cafe Cotton Patch Gospel Dancing at Lughnasa
Fiddler on the Roof Godspell Hook I’m Not Rapapport
Life Is Beautiful Macaroni My Life Once Around Shall We Dance?
A Thousand Clowns Used People Waiting for the Light
13. In Robert Short’s classic book The Gospel According to Peanuts we see that Snoopy is a canine Zorba. See the episodes on page 112 and 113 in which Snoopy says, “To live is to dance” and “To dance is to live.” How often do you feel like that, a feeling nicely expressed in the Rogers & Hammerstein song, “O What a Beautiful Morning.”
Close by singing Sidney Carter’s folk hymn “I Danced in the Morning”– and/or Play a tape of “Zorba’s Dance” and have someone teach the group how to do the simple dance steps, preferably in a circle.