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The dance goes on

Forty years on from 1965, well parted are those who gathered to sit and watch the film Zorba the Greek through a haze of cigarette smoke in a venue known colloquially in Melbourne as the Carlton Bug-House. The film, based on the 1946 first novel by the great Nikos Kazantzakis, and directed by the almost equally great Michaelis Cacoyiannis, was made in 1964, seven years after Kazantzakis’s death. Cretan genius Mikis Theodorakis wrote the music, and a stellar cast made the whole work as nearly perfect as a film can be. The foreign leads—Alan Bates, Anthony Quinn and Lily Kedrova—are now all dead, although the Greek actors Irene Pappas and George Foundas are still alive.

In 1965, when Zorba reached Australia, I was 20, in my third year of university, and living in a college community where trends were inevitably quick to catch on. The young of today would not have a hope of understanding the impact of this film, but it quite simply bowled most of us over. The wonder is that we passed our exams, because we trekked wherever we had to in order to see the film yet again, and our record players worked overtime as we listened to the sound track for hours: the music of the santouri and the bouzouki, instruments none of us had ever heard before, made a strange contrast to the learning of lines of Donne and Shakespeare, and to whatever subject matter budding scientists and doctors had to revise.

Like most young people, we absorbed what we liked and left the rest. Very few of us had ever been out of Australia, and had certainly never been to Greece, let alone Crete. Our world was restricted enough, but it was still difficult to believe in one in which custom compelled most women to wear black and where men sported luxuriant moustaches and knee-boots, while spending their days in a monotonous herding of goats in order to make a precarious living. What really got us in, and what we clung to, was the request, made by a tortured but somehow liberated Alan Bates at the end of the film: Teach me to dance.

In a sense this request and Alan Bates himself, who bore a marked resemblance to my father, sealed my fate. One night in the Park Drive, Parkville, of 1966, a Greek who was also dark and handsome taught me and a few of my friends to dance the way Zorba did, right there in the street. At midnight. Three years later I married the dance instructor and entered the world of Greece in Melbourne. In 1980 I found myself, somewhat bemusedly, an immigrant to the Peloponnese, where in fact Kazantzakis had worked with the person on whom he based the character of Zorba. For various reasons, including the significant one

that he himself was Cretan, he transferred the plot to Crete.

In the first flush of new-chum enthusiasm, I determined to read the novel in modern Greek. Alas, my first attempt at reading The Life and Chequered Career of Alexis Zorbas met with ignominious failure: my grasp of modern Greek, tenuous to say the least at that stage, was just not up to it. Five years later, I tried again, with pencil in one hand, dictionary at the ready, and the resolution to read ten pages a day no matter what. And I managed it, while thrilling to the evocations of landscape and gasping at the sheer violence depicted: the novel is much more given to violence than the film, which is saying something. I still regard reaching the final page as one of the significant achievements of my life, for which I received no praise, Kazantzakis being widely regarded as an atheist communist maverick whose great delight it had been to tamper endlessly with the modern Greek language, challenge the Orthodox Church, and do the image of Greece irreparable harm.

The film, I thought, had receded to the back of my mind, but in 1987 I travelled to Heraklion, where Kazantzakis had been born in 1883 into a Crete that was still Turkish. Once there, I made a special journey to the city walls in order to view his grave. When Kazantzakis died, the Orthodox Church refused him burial in a churchyard, but his friends and supporters, defiantly holding copies of his books aloft, bore him to his last resting place above the city that had seen and endured so much, including a 22-year siege before the Turks finally triumphed in 1669. A simple cross towers over the grave, and the epitaph inspires: I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.

In 1991, the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Crete, in which Australian and New Zealand troops had been heavily involved, I visited Crete again, and saw the dress version of the peasant garb that so attracted me in the film: the Cretan veterans were all blue baggy breeches, elaborate waistcoats, polished boots and black crocheted headbands. Early one afternoon, some of them were sitting in a taverna, and so was I, when Mikis Theodorakis, wanting lunch, made his entrance. A hush fell, and was followed by a subdued but excited buzz. He is like a statue, old Mikis, and built on a grand scale, as so many Cretans are. Either a statue or a god. Looking at that shaggy leonine head, I for one felt that he could easily have flown in from Olympus just for the occasion.

In 1980 there were no such things as video shops in nearby Kalamata; now there are several. And so it came to pass that I recently watched the Zorba film again. This time I was not bowled over, at least not in the same way; instead, I was deeply shocked. There were all sorts of reasons for my shock, not the least of which was the sobering reminder of the protected, heedless girl I had been way back then, at the time of my first viewing. But over my long Greek years, of course, I had been forced to accept that the world I had once found so hard to believe in had actually existed.

Although Kazantzakis’s harsh Crete is a world or even a galaxy away from the Crete of the 21st century, with its glitzy tourist beaches and its overpoweringly opulent hotels, it still exists in remote corners. Only a few years ago, a half-Greek friend of mine, a woman travelling on her own in Crete and well off the beaten tourist track, stopped for a drink at a kafeneion in a mountain village, and soon fell into conversation with two old men. Predictably, they wanted to know her life story, so she obliged with the potted version: Greek mother who had met father when he was in the British army and thus in Greece during the war; subsequent marriage, followed by the establishment of a family in London.

‘We are glad and relieved to learn that you are Greek,’ said the more communicative of the two. ‘Because if you were a Turka, we should have to rape you.’

Kazantzakis wrote his novel, and nearly ten years later was interviewed on Parisian radio. ‘I don’t see Crete as a picturesque, smiling place,’ he said, and anyone viewing the Zorba film in maturity would be bound to agree. Crete’s form ‘is austere. Furrowed by struggles and pain.’ Now the quite terrifying struggles and pain are what I take from the film, which could only have been shot in black and white: God forbid any attempt at a remake of any sort; colour would be unthinkable.

Forty years on I know that the crop area of Crete is a mere three-eighths of its total area, and I have learned that there is nothing at all romantic or ennobling about poverty: in the film the village simpleton is the only person to keen over the body of the widow (Irene Pappas), a woman who was tender, generous and alone, and who was killed for her pride, for her rejection of an importunate local suitor who eventually suicided, and for choosing Alan Bates instead. After her murder outside the church, the rest of the village turned away in a kind of strategic indifference, the indifference of those who have obeyed the implacable rules applying to the vengeful concepts of honour and shame, and who then slope away in order to avoid whatever consequences might be in store.

Also shocking, I think, is the examination of the inexorable power of desire: in the yearning of the widow, in the pathetic flirtatiousness of the faded coquette, Madame Hortense, in the amoral but somehow inspiring wretch that is Zorba himself. Kazantzakis was deeply interested in the conflict between mind and body; thus it was a master stroke to give the Alan Bates character an  English upbringing but a Greek mother. This might seem a simple dichotomy, but there is rarely anything simplistic in Kazantzakis, and so the liberation of the bookish Englishman exacts a dreadful due.

I was not shocked, merely very surprised to discover how much of the dialogue echoed within the ageing brain. Zorba announces that life is trouble; only death is not. A man needs a little madness; else, how is he ever going to break the thread that binds him, and be free? And he asks what Isaac Bashevis Singer called ‘the eternal questions’. Why must we suffer? Why must we die? And the viewer can almost feel the constriction of Alan Bates’s throat as he replies, I don’t know. Inevitably, Zorba cannot let this highly unsatisfactory answer pass.

What use are all your damned books then, if they don’t tell you this? What do they tell you? All Alan Bates can say is, They tell me of the agony of men who cannot answer your questions.

Despite the harshness, suffering and savagery, there is still always the dancing, the method by which Zorba comes to terms with both death and life. To a Greek, dancing is both catharsis and celebration. Each part of Greece has its own traditional dances; here in the Peloponnese, men dance a slow solo zembeikiko, in which arm movements combine with steps to achieve a kind of stately, formalised shedding of inhibition. It is a brave woman who tries it, although she may do so in the company of her husband.

In his writings and in his philosophy Kazantzakis reduced the Ten Commandments to one: that of harmony, with self, with family and fellow humans, and with the natural world. In the film Zorba the Greek, dancing and the music of Zorba’s instrument, the santouri, are ways of achieving this. But then there is the question of supplication; in the film more harmony is achieved via symmetry. When the film opens in the weather-bound kafeneion in Piraeus, Zorba says to the tentative writer: Take me with you. At the end of the film, it is the writer who is the supplicant: Teach me to dance. 

Gillian Bouras is a freelance writer whose books are published by Penguin Australia.


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