Zorba the Greek (UK/USA/Greece, 1964, Mihalis Kakogiannis)
Ben begins (and middles and ends):
My categorization of Zorba the Greek as a comedy enabled me to critically observe what I took to be a tourist worldview. The latter might seem an unwarranted interpretation on my part considering that the film was based on a book by a man from Crete, the setting of the story, and directed by a man from neighboring Cyprus. Opps!
In my defense, I introduced the point about a tourist worldview in the context of suggesting why the film was a big hit in the USA when it was released and has been a perennial favorite ever since. This noted, it is true that I ascribed a tourist worldview not just to this audience but to the film itself. Clearly, this is mistaken insofar as tourists are by definition visiting outsiders, whereas the author, Nikos Kazantzakis, and director, Micheal Cacoyannis, are definitely indigenous insiders. Duh!
This leaves my assertion that the film employs a city-slicker negative stereotype about rural society. In my estimation, this does not require retraction. But it does need to be refined further given the fact that the creators of the book/(film) are drawing on first-hand, concrete knowledge of Cretan culture specifically. So it would appear to follow from this that they are not imposing a stereotype.
Yet the fact remains that the Cretan village is shown to be populated by, as I said, "dull-witted peasants out for the sort of retribution that only the most ignorant tribalists could practice." The degree to which it is appropriate to label this a city-slicker point of view depends on the extent to which it appears ideologically cliche that such backwardness is necessarily to be found out in the provincial boonies. To generalize along this line is in effect the same as imposing a negative stereotype about rural society, which just happens to be Cretan in this case.
Be this as it may; again, what remains is the depiction and I presently feel that my previous treatment of it was inadequate. I indicated that I found it difficult to reconcile the tragic elements in Zorba with it being a comedy overall. It looks to me in retrospect that my observation of this comedic primacy prevented me from better assessing the meaning of the tragic elements. The pathos that is featured does more than merely display the moral shortcomings of the two protagonists. It also, and even more so, makes obvious that the local Cretans are indeed "ethical cretins."
I quote myself to indicate that I perceived at least that much before. But what I wish to add here is that this negative depiction is not the outsiders insult I took it to be. It is rather an insiders critique. I referred to the character of the Greek played by Quinn as well-traveled and therefore enlightened. This is something of an exaggeration. But it is correct enough. And it is hardly a big interpretive leap to recognize that Zorba best represents the perspective of the author (and by association, the director). Zorba provides a critique of Cretan small town life by a once-insider who migrated to Athens to study law, Paris to study philosophy, the Soviet Union to observe the revolution, Spain to observe the republican movement, and elsewhere before dying in Germany and being buried in the capital city of Crete, (thank you Wiki).
Clearly, Kazantzakis addresses his rural upbringing in his homeland not as a bourgeois, jet-set snob but rather as a socialist-inclined citizen personally concerned with the development of his countrymen. At the same time, he is religiously informed and this in connection with his political orientation brings us to the real object of his critique; the dominant organized power in the society - the church.
There are two cursory moments in which a policeman appears in the film but so much on the periphery of the scene as to be entirely insignificant. The only institution of authority to receive attention in Zorba is the church. While this observation is focused, the critique entailed in it is askance, as befitting a comedy. In all instances of this sideways attack, however, the church is plainly revealed to be utterly useless with respect to providing moral leadership in the community.
If the villagers are ethical cretins still stuck in Old Testament-style tribal backwardness, it is because the church completely fails to advance the true Gospel of Jesus. Appropriately enough, the original meaning of the word cretin was literally Christian; as in, still recognized by Jesus as one of his followers despite not having enough human intellect to be faithful on purpose. For the true Gospel is not superficially intellectual but deeply emotional. The spiritual core of faith is love. This has to do with the Passion of the Christ through which individuals must find love; for each other, for life, for God.
Hence, the live-life-to-the fullest theme running through Zorba is an expression of Humanist Christianity. All of the sage lessons the Greek teaches to the Brit about the necessity of passion amount to rejection of theology as such. To get at this ironically, the cretin - the non-intellectual lover of the sheer existence of everything- is the real Christian according to the film.
Wiki informs me that by one vote Kazantzakis lost the 1957 Nobel Prize to Camus. The two are certainly peers. Unlike the gloomy Algerian, the uplifting Cretan is no atheist but his religious temperament is existentialist through and through. Some time after the publication of Zorba, he was officially condemned by the Greek Orthodox Church, (as in the next decade he would be more immediately by the Roman Catholic Church following the publication of The Last Temptation of Christ). Clearly, the patriarchs of the eastern church saw the critique in Zorba that I initially missed when I failed to make sense of the pathos in the comedy.
Not that the critique of the church in Zorba isn't sometimes blatantly humorous. The portrayal of the order of monks in town is pointedly satirical. In one scene, Zorba fools them into believing that some water has actually turned into wine. Upon the basis of this supposed miracle, he ingratiates himself among them to his later commercial advantage. In the action climax of the film, they are funny like Eric Idle is as a nun on the run. While timbers - pretty much stolen off their property - come tumbling towards them in a mess of collapsed engineering, the monks' flight is hilarious. They are, then, buffoons on the margins of the town who are hopeless non-starters when it comes to improving the moral fiber of the people. And speaking of being a once-insider, Kazantzakis himself took a shot at being a monk. That lasted six months. Say no more.
But the serious critique in Zorba attends the tragic elements in the story. When Zorba's lover is dying, she takes a cross from the drawer of her nightstand and clasps it for salvation. After she has died and all around her corpse the crones plunder her luxurious possessions, part of their hatred for her is explained as stemming from her being the wrong kind of Christian. It is said that as a westerner she literally holds the cross incorrectly according to the eastern church. The schismatic cleavage of the church is a striking indication of the lack of love in the ecclesiastical institution as a whole, displaying its incapability of providing moral guidance for the children of Christ.
This is driven home most dramatically in the murder scene of the widow. Rather than attend the funeral service being conducted by the priest inside, much of the community congregates outside in the churchyard. They skip church in order to bar the widow entrance to the service so they can collectively get on with the business of killing her. To say that the clergy proves ineffectual while this is going on is a gross understatement. No attempt is made to stop this tribal "justice." The priest is no doubt utterly oblivious that his parish is elsewhere committing murder while he mechanically goes through the motions of performing a corporate function. The Brit - who is no small catalyst in the mob's action against the widow - is disgracefully impotent when it comes to intervening on her behalf. Zorba comes close to saving her but his efforts prove futile in the end, revealing the limitations of his passion. Only the church had the power to provide the proper leadership, to make the crowd choose compassion, to offer loving forgiveness like Jesus would do. In this capacity, Zorba exposes the church to be null and void.
In my original review of the film, I saw in it an outsider's point of view. I was right about this but in a confused way. What Kazantzakis is outside is not Crete but rather the church. This is well symbolized by the material fact of him being buried, Wiki reports, "on the wall surrounding the city of Heriklion near the Chania Gate, because the Orthodox Church ruled out his being buried in a cemetery." In his lifetime, he responded to the religious conservatives who excommunicated him: ""You gave me a curse, Holy fathers, I give you a blessing: may your conscience be as clear as mine and may you be as moral and religious as I," (Wiki, of course).
But what about the status of women in the film? That they are mostly invisible is easy to explain as an accurate reflection of the male-dominated culture at the time, especially considering that the book came out in 1946. On the other hand, they are not absolutely invisible. They are shown (as are children) at the beginning of the film when the protagonists first show up. They are also shown at the end of the film, out in the fields working. And perhaps similarly in other bits I cannot recall.
More germane to the question, Monica has brought to my attention that they are present - albeit as a minority - during the terrible execution of the widow. So much for the potential sisterhood I found absent before. Besides, the widow is like an orthodox Jew insofar as she refuses to assimilate just as much as she is ostracized.
As for Zorba's lover, I have already touched on her alien standing as a French Catholic. Recall her relative class position as the sole entrepreneurial proprietor in town and there's no chance for the likes of her receiving solidarity and support from the locals, female locals included. The upshot of all this is that I find myself unable to substantiate my feminist objection to Zorba.
Nevertheless, I continue to be bothered in this regard. I adhere to the impression that the two love interests in the story are at bottom plot devices and not worthwhile personalities in their own right. This is not to suggest that they are crudely objectified. Yet it is to say that their subjective human agency is not allowed to fully articulate itself.
While there is nothing necessarily misogynist about homo-eroticism, and while the homo-eroticism in the story is far from explicit, I wonder if I am detecting a sexist strain in Kazantzakis' theologically infused existentialism. One thing is definite, Zorba's benign heterosexual masculinity manifests itself in a tender but patronizing macho manner. But as I have only seen Cacoyannis' film and not read Kazantzakis' book, I feel it would be intellectually irresponsible of me to venture further on this topic.
Zorba's Famous Dance:
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