Basil is an Englishman of Greek extraction who goes to Crete to check out a mine he has inherited. Zorba attaches himself to Basil, ostensibly as a cook but clearly as a guide to the joys and tragedies of life. In terms of Quinn's performance the only thing you can really say is that before there was Robert Begnigni there was Zorba the Greek when it comes to Mediterranean men who provided inspirational madness. As Zorba tells Basil: "Dammit, boss, I like you too much not to say it. 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."
When they arrive on Crete it becomes clear the mine is not going to pan out for anybody. They move in with Madame Hortense, who is wooed by Zorba, who insists Basil go after the beautiful local widow. After these tragedies all that is left is Zorba's plan for bringing trees down from the top of the mountain, an endeavor obviously equally doomed to failure. This is why in the end there is only one thing a man can do, and it is in this cathartic conclusion that any and all sins of this film are absolved.
"Zorba the Greek" is written and directed by Michael Cacoyannis, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. The film won three Academy Awards: Lila Kedrova for Best Supporting Actress, Best Art/Set Direction, and Best Cinematography. Quinn did not win the Oscar for what is clearly his most memorable role in a long and distinguished film career, but that is usually the case with actors and their greatest roles. Marlon Brando did not win for Stanley Kowalski and Quinn did not win for Alexis Zorba. What is a man to do in the face of such a fate but dance?
Cacoyannis assembled one of the most sublime international casts ever in this classic. Few movies can approach great literature as far as providing a microcosm of "the human condtition," to use an overworked, but apt phrase. This is one of the few that can. The plot, which is secondary to the theme, revolves around the wizened, but still vibrant Greek peasant Zorba (Quinn) teaching the young, uptight, sexually confused (OK, maybe that's not PC of me, but it's certainly the subtext) Brit mine-owner "boss" Basil (Alan Bates), about the facts of life.
Zorba is one of the great lovable rogues of cinema history, maybe even the most memorable. Wine, women, song and dance are his credo, and we come to learn that they are his defense against some personal tragedy in his background. This film is unmatched in terms of playing the comic against the tragic, the many facets of life that color actual existence, as opposed to the usual Hollywood, one dimensional perspectives. There are layers within layers to the message here, just as in great fiction or theater. What it boils down to, however, is about friendship. Zorba and Basil go through so much together, running the full gamut of human emotions, that by the perfectly realized ending (the best I can recall in recent or distant memory, outside of Fellini's La Strada maybe [another Quinn movie, incidentally]), this viewer was breaking down in sheer joy/release/catharsis. The Greeks have long had a knack for this, have you noticed?
As a footnote, the soundtrack is also legendary, thanks to Greece's most noted score composer, Mikis Theadorakis. I'm not going to gripe here, but how did Alan Bates pass on without an Oscar on his mantle? This was essentially Cacoyannis' and Quinn's project, however, and they should live on in every film buff's memory for ages to come for this masterpiece on both their parts. Irene Papas, as a widow who shoots some of the most unforgettable darting glances in film history, and Lila Kedrova as the sad, but ever hopeful Madame Hortense, are also highly memorable. And where did Cacoyannis find those old, withered, diminuitive, toothless harpies that hung about the bedside like vultures gathering for a feast?
Do what you can to re-view this true classic on VHS while we hope and pray that the eventual DVD treatment will be of worthy quality.
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