Not Rated. Running time: 2 hours 40 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
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
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 Strada 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 (Lila Kedrova, who won an Oscar for this role), 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 (Irene Papas), 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, as he puts it, to the point of “bursting.” In a quiet moment Zorba explains that when he is filled with the joy of life, up to the point of bursting, he must dance. Also, when he is sad, as when his little son died, he is bursting with grief, he must dance.
The second cause for disturbance is when Zorba talks Basil 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.
The marriage into which the reluctant Zorba enters; the brief affair between Basil and the Widow; and the attempt to transport the timber for the mine shaft down the mountain—it is no secret to reveal that all end in disaster, but the climax of the film is not tragic. How this is so is what makes the film so great. The key is Zorba’s dancing, which at first so unsettles Basil that he orders him to stop. But at the climax, when their plans are in ruins, Basil, infected by Zorba’s love of life, turns to his friend who has said to him that he has everything but one—“You need a touch of madness.” Thus on the beach basil asks, “Zorba, teach me to dance.” And what a dance it is, with Mikis Theodorakis’s pulsating music.
This stirring musical score 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.
A study guide for this film is contained in the author’s book Films and Faith: 40 Discussion Guides, available from Visual Parables.