Zorba the Greek - from real life to the big screens

Zorba the Greek, a masterpiece of modern Greek literature and an Oscar winner movie 

 Published in Greece in 1946 as "The Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas" and in a first edition translated into English by Carl Wildman in 1952, Nikos Kazantzakis' novel "Zorba the Greek" was widely regarded as a masterpiece of modern Greek and universal literature which later would inspire one of the most memorable films in the history of cinema of all time.

 The novel is a fiction story inspired by the life of a real character Georgios Zorbas, a former farmer, shepherd, lumberman, and miner, whom Nikos Kazantzakis met as a monk on his journey to Holy Mount Athos in 1915. Zorbas was born in Livadi, in the Pieria Prefecture of Macedonia in 1865. Working as a miner in a French company in Halkidiki, he met Eleni Kalkouni, the manager’s daughter. The two got married, settled in Paleochori, and had 8 children. With time, Zorbas's life became tough. A lot of misery struck his family because of the First World War and his wife's death.

 At Athos, the two men became good friends. In 1916 they moved to Mani, where Kazantzakis was assigned to manage the Prastova mine near Stoupa, a seaside village of Lefktro on the coast of the southern Peloponnese peninsula. Despite his stormy and dramatic existence, Zorba's exuberant personality, carefree and full of lust for life, fascinated Kazantzakis. Beyond the friendship and adventures they went through together, the two characters, so different - the seemingly primitive worker who has gone through the hardship of life and the refined intellectual, struggling with existential thoughts - later became Kazantzakis' novel protagonists.

 The Second World War, the famine, and the Nazi oppression overwhelmed the strong Zorba. He died of a cardiac arrest in September 1941 and is buried in Skopje, where he moved from Greece in 1922, along with one of his daughters, Katerina. Kazantzakis has never seen Zorba again, but his remarkable story inspired him for the novel "The Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas". 

Zorba's dance, from the cinema screens to a national symbol of Greeks

  Launched in 1964, the screen version of the novel Zorba the Greek is a Greek-American comedy-drama written, produced, edited, and directed by the Greek Cypriot Michael Kakoyiannis, starring Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates as the young Basil. The black and white movie was shot entirely in Crete, showing Chania town, the village of Kokkino Chorio in the Apokoronas region, and Stavros Beach on the Akrotiri peninsula.

 At first glance, the action seems formless. The narrative structure of this story does not follow a specific plotline but instead appears as a collection of episodes presented in fragments. However, as the story progresses, the experiences and interactions of the two main characters take on greater significance, as they become an excellent metaphor for the human experience. The events take place in 1916 and tell the story of a young Anglo-Greek intellectual raised in Britain who, eager to escape his life among books, ventures to Crete, in a world of peasants and workers, to reopen a disused lignite mine, inherited from his father.

 Hired to accompany him and help him interact with the locals to implement his business plan, Zorba becomes the novel main character. Although apparently a “flat” individual from the lower social strata, an illiterate peasant, inseparable from his “santuri” (a small musical instrument like a cimbalom), Zorba manages to ” warm up” everything he touches, and its effect on Basil, the tight educated young man is colossal. Zorba teaches him to free himself from the trap of his own mind: “I listen to you talk and I see that your legs and arms aren't connected to your head. You're like a puppet.” But above all, he helps him to explore the world, uninhibited and out of routine: “Boss, you have everything but one thing: madness! A man needs a little madness, otherwise ... he never dares to cut the rope and be free!”

 The emotional core of the film is the relationship between Basil and Zorba. The spontaneous and invaluable lessons that the young man receives from the illiterate but wise and witty peasant, supported by interesting stories from his own experience, give him colorful perspectives on ideologies, religion and philosophy, women, and a new understanding of people and existence in general.

  The screenplay, with great effect on the public, managed to highlight Kazantzakis' novel so well that he was nominated seven times for the 1965 American Film Academy Awards and received three Oscars: "Best Supporting Actress” for Lila Kedrova (Madame Hortense), “Best Art Direction” for Vassilis Photopoulos, and “Best Cinematography” (black and white) for Walter Lassally. Nominated for the role of the character Alexis Zorba, played masterfully, although he did not gain recognition in the supreme competition of American cinema, the brilliant Antony Quinn yet contributed to the popularization of the story that inspired the movie Zorba the Greek and the transformation of Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis into a titan of universal literature.

  In the final scene of the film, after Basil has put all his money and hopes into Zorba's frantic vision of creating an installation to transport logs from the top of the mountain to the sea, the building collapses like a domino, and the scared villagers run away from the construction site. When facing adversity, Zorba teaches Basil the power of laughter: ”Hey boss, did you ever see a more splendiferous crash?" Left alone amid the disaster, the two defy rationality and start laughing and dancing. It is the famous scene of the sirtaki, a dance that has won the hearts of many generations of spectators and has become, over time, a "cultural emblem" of the Greek nation.

 Reflecting Kazantzakis' existentialist vision, the novel and film Zorba the Greek presents life as a spiritual and psychological adventure. The magic of the moment, passionate love, or simple earthly pleasure make human life worth living, and the inevitability of death is gladly accepted, as a reality of the human condition.

1 comment

  1. A Mistyrious Gigantic Star...The Unforgettable Anthony Quinn...Zorba The Greek....