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Greek special (1): Our Greek is still called Zorba

Laocoon groupFollowing the euro crisis, Culture Press focuses on Greece in a series of articles. In the first part, George Vermij looks at how film has influenced our image of the Mediterranean country.

Is there not a more apt image of Greece than Antony Quinn as Zorba taking on the Sirtaki dance and find resignation despite life's harsh setbacks? The success of Zorba the Greek (1964) was the beginning of a cultural cliché that has forever defined the country's image for many. See the recent cover of Der Spiegel e.g. where the famous scene is parodied.

the mirror

In the film, Zorba represents living from day to day. He is an epicurean who takes responsibilities lightly and is contrasted in the film with a down-to-earth character played by Alan Bates. The film by Cypriot Michael Cacoyannis is set in Crete, which looks antiquated with its archaic customs and poverty. This is not enlightened Europe, but a place where time has stood still.

The character of Zorba shows Quinn's ambiguous relationship with Greece. He was an American with Mexican roots, but that did not prevent him from playing a Greek resistance fighter in The Guns of Navarone (1961). In the book adaptation by John Fowles The Magus (1968), he was once again a mysterious Greek opposite stiff Brit Michael Caine. If that wasn't enough, Quinn was also snared to play the ultimate Greek in The Greek Tycoon (1978). In that forgettable jet-set soap opera, he played the eccentric Aristotle Onassis.

The hooker with the golden heart

As a female counterpoint to Quinn's stereotypical Greek, there is Melina Merkouri who appears in Never on Sunday (1960) plays a fiery prostitute. An American tourist doesn't like her free spirit and loose morals and tries to educate her. However, it remains to be seen whether the hooker with the golden heart stays on the straight and narrow. How appropriate that a passionate Greek is kept on track by the intervention of a rational foreigner. American Jules Dassin (known for Rififi and Topkapi) directed the film and starred alongside Merkouri who was also his partner. The trailer is hilarious and does turn the life of a simple hooker into a very big party.

Based on the above films, it is fair to say that Greece is a lazy land in foreign cinema where modern civilisation has not yet made its appearance. But that fact forms part of the charm of the islands and ruins shining under the Mediterranean sun. It is an image already cultivated in the book My family and other animals by Gerald Durrell. In the sympathetic autobiographical story, he describes his childhood in the 1930s when he and his family are trapped on idyllic Corfu. The island and its unusual wildlife are lovingly described as a kind of ideal escape from reserved England. The much-loved book was adapted for television twice, undoubtedly leaving a mark on the country's image for many Britons.

Charm and dictatorship

It is this charm that at first glance also prevails in the Italian Mediterraneo (1991) and the sentimental Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001) set during World War II. In both films, Italian soldiers arrive on a Greek island and are slowly enchanted by the women and the relaxed pace of life. An idyll that is eventually disrupted by war.

The country's complex history has only been covered to a limited extent by filmmakers outside Greece. The American film Eleni (1985) shows a writer played by John Malkovich searching for his Greek mother who disappeared during the civil war. In his search, he discovers the nasty and complex sides of a battle that lasted four years, but has remained very underexposed outside Greece.

The harsh reality of the colonel's regime was aptly portrayed by Greek director Costa-Gavras in Z (1969). Costa-Gavras was working in France at the time and, with a French cast including Yves Montand and Jean-Louis Trintignant, made this sharp insight into the workings of a repressive and totalitarian system.

Ideal holiday destination

After the transition to democracy, contemporary Greece became a picturesque holiday destination with a promise of sexual debauchery. In the comic Shirley Valentine (1989), the witty Pauline Collins flees English narrow-mindedness and her traditional husband by having a good time in the Greek islands. There she encounters Costas, who is again in a tradition of a Greek being played by a foreigner. In this case, the honour falls to funny Brit Tom Conti. For Shirley, Greece is the ideal place to discover yourself, under the sun and with a cocktail.

And see there the romantic comedies Mamma Mia! (2008) and My Life in Ruins (2009) where Greece is experienced mainly through the eyes of tourists. Things go a little deeper in Richard Linklaters Before Midnight (2013), but the focus is mainly on Jesse and Celine's marital problems, which Linklater has already closely followed in his earlier films.

The image of Zorba and the Greek spirit seems hard to suppress. A stereotype that has been exported to the new world. The popular comedy My big fat Greek wedding (2002) is set not in Greece but in a windswept Chicago. Despite the geographical distance, all the clichés have survived the crossing to the American mainland including Zorba's dance. And then there is the big fat wedding as a symbol of excess and a big wedding party where no thought is given to the cost.

George Vermij

George Vermij is a cultural omnivore with a curious and critical eye. He studied art history and political science in Leiden and has an incurable film addiction. Besides Cultuurpers, he writes about film for Schokkend Nieuws, Gonzo Circus and In de bioscoop. For Tubelight, Metropolis M and Jegens & Tevens he writes about visual art.View Author posts

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