Greek history in the 20th Century is a catalog of woes. World wars, border wars, civil war, population dislocations, political disarray, and financial crisis have all left their scars. It may be a stereotypical oversimplification to say that when things go wrong, the Greeks dance, but it is also a clear expression of the spirit of an irrepressible people.
Never on Sunday (1960)
Jules Dassin wrote, directed, and starred in this film, featuring his future wife, Melina Mercouri. Dassin plays an amateur philosopher, named Homer Thrace, an American, who arrives in Greece to follow the paths of the ancient philosophers in search of truth. He is playing himself here and exercising his passion for Greek culture. This passion will be embodied in the flamboyant prostitute named Ilya, whom he meets in Piraeus. He is horrified when he learns her profession, seeing her as a fallen goddess, the spirit of ancient Greece laid low.
His fascination with her deepens when he discovers that she is a devotee of Greek drama. At a birthday party she throws for herself, she retells the story of Medea, giving it unaccustomed charm and a happy ending. Homer is outraged and wants to show her the truth. He accompanies her to a restored classic theater (Theater of Herodotus) to see a traditional performance of Medea. Afterwards, they walk on the Acropolis to discuss the play. When Homer has some success at opening her eyes to the truth, she becomes angry and abandons him. He persists, however, and becomes her mentor, mirroring their real life marital relationship. She agrees to read the great philosophers and listen to classical music.
Later, she mistakenly concludes that Homer is working for the man who exploits the prostitutes in Piraeus and returns to her old life as a fleet of Navy ships comes into port. It all gets sorted out in the end and Homer gets drunk on ouzo, dancing like a fool to the strains of bouzouki. He gets on a ship and departs for home while his friends wave from the shore. He throws his philosopher’s notebook into the sea. Like Zorba the Greek, this is a 20th century abandonment of reason in favor of elemental passion, expressed in Greek music and dance. Dassin and Mercouri after making this movie and collaborated on other films including Phaedra (1962) and Topkapi (1964). They married in 1966.
Based on the myth of Phaedra, this film by Jules Dassin, starring Melina Mercouri and Anthony Perkins, is updated to modern Greece. Echoes of the Greek tragic spirit reverberate on the screen. Mercouri plays the wife of a Greek millionaire. She is sent to Paris to persuade her husband’s son to pursue his studies. When she falls in love with the young man, tragedy becomes inevitable. The film did very well in Europe but not in the American market. The lack of a happy ending and an absence of knowledge of the deeper streams of mythology may partly account for this reaction. It is a less-than-perfect work of cinematic art, but it balances the realities of modern Greece and its living myths better than any film has ever done. Mythical Phaedra was the daughter of King Minos and Pasiphaë, and sister of Ariadne. Married to Theseus. she falls in love with his son, Hippolytus, with fatal consequences. Other movies where Phaedra can be found are Minotaur, the Wild Beast of Crete and The Immortals (see Movies from Greek Myths).
Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates star in this treatment of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel (1946). The film was written and directed by Michael Cacoyannis. The action takes place on the island of Crete where Basil (Bates) has inherited an abandoned mine, which he plans to reopen. Alexis Zorba (Quinn) is the Greek life force that Basil has hired to supervise the ill-omened mining operation. There are two women on the island who provide love interest for the two friends. One is an aging prostitute, named Madame Hortense (Lila Kedrova), who runs a seedy hotel. Then there is a no-nonsense widow played by a young and sternly beautiful Irene Papas. Basil finds his way to her door. Zorba’s devotion to the exhibitionistic ritual of Greek dance is the central motif of the film.
Zorba hatches a plan to save the mine by transporting trees from a mountain to add lumber to their product line. It is risky business but Zorba pours his whole heart into it. Basil overcomes his admitted ambivalence and sleeps with the widow. A local boy commits suicide when the liaison becomes known in the village. The widow is stoned by angry villagers and despite Zorba’s efforts to save her, she is knifed by the boy’s father. After twenty-five centuries, the rough beast of vengeance still rears its head and reminds us that we are half human and half animal.
Zorba marries Madame Hortense out of guilt and she dies of pneumonia soon after. The villagers descend on her hotel even as she expires and pick the place clean. In the end, Zorba’s plan for conveying logs down the mountain collapses and the two men are left on the beach with dashed hopes but not dispirited. Basil asks Zorba to teach him to dance. It’s totally implausible but very affecting. This was an art film that crossed over and became popular fare. Lila Kedrova won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, though there were many other nominations for the movie. To be fair, it was a year of intense competition.
Z (1969) – Costa-Gavras
Perfectly suited for the time in which it was released, this film aroused the political sensibilities of a worldwide public. It put a microscope on political setbacks in Greece during the 1960s while at the same time raising larger questions about issues of democratic rule. It was fashionable in that time to ask why Greece, the standard bearer for democracy, could not manage to govern itself by the will of the people. It was also a time of intense suspicion of any ruling elite. Right-leaning conservatives felt the need to protect their culture from outside influences. Left-leaning activists we’re inclined to foster polarization by advocating sweeping change. The action follows the investigation of the assassination of a leftist political leader in 1963. The military junta, which took power in 1967, is engaged in a cover-up. Irene Papas plays the widow of the victim (Yves Montand). In the end, the generals are routed but it is the look of resignation on the face of Papas that expresses the deeper dilemma of these times. Z won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and remains the director’s best-known work. He released Missing in 1982 and Capital in 2013.
The Magus (1968)
There are two movies where Greek islands serve as places of retreat for affluent people who wish to withdraw from Civilization and live more in the past than the present. They are The Magus (1968) and Tempest (1982). Both did poorly with the critics and the public. The Magus is based on the novel by John Fowles, which I found deeply fascinating. It stars Anthony Quinn, Michael Caine, and Candace Bergen. This film has been hard to find. Tempest is a Paul Mazursky film loosely based on Shakespeare’s play. Pauline Kael said in her review, “It takes a high degree of civilization to produce something so hollow.” I found it difficult to sustain my interest in this movie.
This film is based on the real-life experience of author Nicholas Gage. John Malkovich plays the NY Times reporter who goes to Greece to discover the truth about the execution of his mother by communists in Greece in the aftermath of World War II. It is a powerful but somewhat cold treatment of these events.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001)
Two movies set in the Greek islands tell of the romantic adventures of Italian soldiers stationed in small villages during World War II. Mediterraneo won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Nicolas Cage starred in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin opposite Penelope Cruz.
A Touch of Spice (2003)
This is a surprisingly placid and undramatic treatment of the period of 1955–78 when Greeks were deported from western Turkey to Greece. In that time, the Greek population of Turkey dropped from 135,00 to 7,000. These numbers vary depending on the sources and the timeframe. The lead character is a man named Fanis who is just a boy when his family is deported from Istanbul. He leaves behind a beloved grandfather and a girl of his own age. He attempts to establish continuity in his life by embracing his family’s love of Istanbul cooking. Eventually he becomes an astrophysicist and this story is told in flashbacks of his youth. In the end, he returns to Istanbul at the time of his grandfather’s death and has a brief reunion with the girl he left behind. She is now grown and committed to her marriage with a Turkish military officer. There is a strange and self-referential epilogue where Fanis dances in an attic among imagined heavenly bodies. This movie, beautifully filmed, should have been better.