A countless number of reviews and essays have been written about Michael Cacoyannis?s ?Zorba the Greek.? When first screened in the mid-1960s the film came like a bombshell, splitting public opinion. Some spoke about the ?humiliation? of Greece because the film depicted a group of Cretan villagers participating in a murder and a looting. Others, among them Nikos Kazantzakis?s widow Eleni, talked about the pettiness and distortions revealed in the film.
So, does ?Zorba the Greek? do Crete an injustice?
The answer to that question is three Oscars, massive commercial success, international recognition and swarms of tourists who flocked to Greece, enchanted by the way the island was depicted, by the protagonists and by the music penned by Mikis Theodorakis. Foreign commentators in fact saw the film as one of the best ever made on the theme of development, interpreting Alexis Zorbas?s efforts to put a quarry back into operation in this light.
More than 46 years later, the figure cut by Anthony Quinn dancing himself to exhaustion in order not to burst from joy may seem colorful rather than imposing, schematic rather than charming. Zorba is stubborn, a windbag and ambitious on a limited scale; he is equally remarkable in the way that he reacts to disaster. He promises a breakthrough in engineering that will bring life back to an abandoned mine. He fails, yet nothing can break him because what he wants with all his heart is life itself.
Even if the idea that there is a Zorba in every one of us sounds hammy, the image of Greece as imprinted in Cacoyannis?s film has managed to survive. Maybe this is because the director was not trying to idealize or prettify the island. In his adaptation of Kazantzakis?s novel, he kept the crudeness of the characters, their violence, their wiliness, their humanity, as well as his admiration and his abhorrence. He went along with the contradictions. He refused to put his name to a nicely executed film about the location, as the edicts of the tourism industry would have it. He told truths about society through the conventions of cinema. And he placed his own small stone in the foundation of Greece?s development. He was not concerned about how the image he presented abroad would be perceived, nor challenging stereotypes. He abused nothing, hid nothing and idealized nothing. He made the best of an idea. He put together an enviable international co-production without cutting corners.
Cacoyannis crossed international frontiers on the simple belief that for art to become international, it must tell the truth. That goes for more than just art.