Sunday 18 February 2007

Zorba the Greek (1964)

Alan Bates plays Basil, who is half English and half Greek and who is heading to the island of Crete to claim his inheritance from his Greek father. The inheritance is land that contains a mine and so Basil ends up hiring Alexis Zorba, a strange man who laughs a lot who he meets while waiting for the rain to stop and his boat to sail. Basil is officially a writer of poetry and essays but who really doesn't do much of anything. He continues to do not much of anything in his newly adopted village on Crete, though he is the catalyst for plenty of events, not just good ones that come from his reopening the mine.

A lot of this plays like a silent movie. One scene in particular where Irene Papas comes looking for her goat doesn't have many words and really doesn't need them. It's dynamic and engaging and tells a number of stories in a completely visual manner. It would have worked just as well with a title card in the middle and there are a whole slew of other scenes to which exactly the same would apply, most but not all of which focus around Papas, who hardly speaks a word in the entire movie. Words often aren't important here, for as much as Zorba keeps distilling unconventional nuggets of wisdom purely in conversation.

Anthony Quinn is a joyous riot in this film. I've seen many different faces of Anthony Quinn, from the early days as a Mexican heel in Carole Lombard comedies or Bulldog Drummond movies, to the power of Fellini's La Strada, and on to the feature length Hercules episodes in the nineties when he played Zeus. Here's a new one though: a wild free spirit, Alexis Zorba, who has strange thoughts because, as he says, his brain is not the right weight. More than anything, he is alive, very alive, and he has advice on that as much as everything else. 'Life is trouble,' he says, 'Only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.'

Co-star Alan Bates is by necessity no competition whatsoever. Basil is as restrained as Zorba is unrestrained, as still and tied to the ground as Zorba is restless and unfettered. However there is a character that can compete with Zorba the Greek on his own terms: the aging diva Madame Hortense, for the portrayal of which Lila Kedrova won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar that year, outdoing in that respect even Anthony Quinn himself. She's a highly emotional woman, four times married, who is an amazing mixture that is half grotesque Baby Jane and half childishly beautiful. She's one of those truly unforgettable characters, so memorable for not really doing much other than be, in her own idiosyncratic way.

Some of what goes on is stunning, literally, because it's part of alien culture that I don't understand in the slightest. I don't want to issue spoilers, because this is so strange, but there are two separate incidents that seem irreconcilaby foreign and both have to do with death. Both also make for amazing pieces of cinema, which this is in entirety. It stands out because it's something other than anything I've previously seen.

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