SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
Despite the film’s title character, who relishes living life to the fullest, Zorba the Greek (1964) is shot in black and white (despite the poster being in color). It seems ironic since that choice downplays the variety that the film says existence offers. The opening has Basil (Alan Bates), a nerdish Englishman with a very British name, trying to protect his books stored in a wicker trunk from the rain falling in Greece. From this image one can quickly see that up to this point his interests have relied on vicariously experiencing the world through his readings. He is there because he has inherited a mine on the island of Crete, and he has decided that it was time to venture out into the world.Waiting for the storm to end so he can travel to the island, Basil stays in the waiting area for the ferry. IMDb notes that the collection of individuals huddled together are representative of various members of Greek society, including the peasantry and the clergy. Basil sees Zorba (Anthony Quinn, in a career-defining performance) outside in the rain looking through a window. The shot depicts him as a social outsider, or at least someone different from the other members of the community. He behaves contrary to accepted norms. He is observant because he noticed that Basil had many belongings, so he will be staying for an extended period. He asks that Basil take him along with him. When Basil asks why, Zorba says that people always want to know the reason for things instead of just doing something “for the hell of it.” Zorba is not one to contemplate the reasons for acting, but instead relies on his passions.
Zorba says Basil is English despite his being half-Greek. Apparently, one must be fully Greek to be considered eligible to fit in as a fellow countryman. Zorba relies on his physical instincts instead of his mental abilities, since he says that his hands and feet tell him what jobs to do, so his head has no reason to disagree with them. He admits that he was an excellent miner, but he beat up the boss and was fired, stressing his sometimes aggressive nonconformity. He then laughs exuberantly, disturbing those present, which adds to his role as a rebel. Basil is feeling increasingly uncomfortable because of this stranger’s intrusiveness. He attempts to distance himself from Zorba by saying he will check as to the situation with the ferry. However, Basil then capitulates to social norms because he doesn’t want to appear rude. So, he invites Zorba to join him.
Basil tells Zorba that he is a writer of poetry and essays. Zorba’s comment to Basil is, “you think too much.” Here we have the dynamic between these two men, where one is cerebral and the other physical. Zorba says people like Basil ponder over everything, wasting time as it were, thus short-changing the time one has to enjoy life. However, Zorba confesses that one of his nicknames is “epidemic,” because he has a tendency to “louse” things up. So, the implication is that appetites that have no boundaries on being satisfied can lead to negative outcomes. Is Zorba drawn to Basil purely for opportunistic reasons? Does he want to convert him to his way of life? Or, could Zorba have a subconscious attraction to that civilized aspect of Basil that compliments the chaotic parts of life?
Basil asks Zorba if he has clothes in his satchel. Zorba says Basil asks “sensible” questions, again stressing the Englishman’s rational stance. Zorba is not carrying anything practical, but instead has a string instrument called a santouri. Despite their differences, both men are artistic, since Basil creates poetry and Zorba makes music. But Basil hasn’t written in a while, and instead is traveling to Crete to resurrect a mine his father left him but Basil let stay dormant. He says he “must” do this act, and it’s as if he is also resuscitating that part of himself that is Greek so he can be part of the land instead of isolated in his intellectual seclusion.
Basil has no experience in the mining industry, and Zorba already noted that he worked in mines. So, Basil goes a little “mad” as he says, a bit off his mental script, and decides to hire Zorba to help him out. He also says that they will have fun, so it appears that Zorba is already having an influence on the nerdish Basil. But Zorba says when it comes to his playing and singing music, he must be free to do as he wishes. Basil agrees to this “bargain” between them. They drink to their partnership, and Basil sips rum despite his preference for tea. He toasts “God,” but Zorba includes “the devil,” which suggests that the two sides of people combine to form human nature.
The boat that takes them to Crete suffers a choppy crossing, and the people careen back and forth. But it almost looks as if they are dancing, as if art can be extracted from chaos. It is unexpected that it is Zorba who feels seasick. He becomes queasy when he watches a woman, who seems to be flirting with him, eating. Maybe he has this sudden queasiness because his appetites have been indulged too often. Basil asks him if he is married, and there is some misogyny in his answer as he says he had a wife, family and a house, calling it “the full catastrophe.” When Basil says he is single, Zorba attributes the absence of marital involvement to spending time with “too many books,” which for Zorba denies physical interaction with women.
They arrive at the impoverished village where Basil’s land is located. The townspeople are excited at the arrival of the owner, most likely hoping for some financial gain due to the reopening of the mine. Mavrandoni (Giorgos Foundas) has been overseeing the property in the absence of Basil’s family. Madame Hortense (Lila Kedrova, winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this role) is a middle-aged French woman who owns the Hotel Ritz (a poor version of the elite spot in Paris) and wants Basil to stay there. She is exuberant about getting herself ready to meet the newcomers and she is flamboyant, indulging in clothes, music, and dancing that fits her personality. She stresses that she was once a performer in many chic cabarets, which shows her as someone who may prefer living in the past.
Zorba becomes a mentor in hedonistic ways to Basil and tries to get him to dance with Madame Hortense. She says that she was involved with four admirals from different countries. Their beards smelled of distinctly different perfumes so she could tell them apart, even in the dark, which suggests that she knew with whom she was intimate with at any given time. She tells a tale of how she used her influence to stop a military confrontation and was outraged that she received no credit for her efforts. While she is telling her story, Basil keeps trying to contain his laughter due to her melodramatic rendition. Hortense sees Basil’s reaction and runs to her bedroom, upset by the lack of acknowledgment of her perceived prior accomplishments. The men follow and Zorba tries to console her as she talks about how the war ended and the four admirals then left her after a night of lovemaking that combined all of their perfumes. She is a woman who is as earthy as Zorba, whether or not she is a reliable narrator of her tales, and Zorba waves Basil out of the room so Zorba and she can consummate their physical passions.
The next scene involves many of the local men capturing a goat that belongs to a “Widow” (Irene Papas), who comes looking for her animal. She is beautiful and dressed in black, and Zorba has already boasted about his ability to charm widows. The men at first hide the goat and then attempt to keep it from the Widow. Goats are a traditional symbol for male lust, and there is an atmosphere of sexual harassment here. The usually bawdy Zorba however does not like what is happening and rescues the goat with a disapproving look at the male villagers. As she exits, the Widow spits on the floor to show her disgust for the men who tormented her. Zorba gives her the goat and Basil also shows compassion for the woman as he hands her his umbrella to protect her from the pouring rain. She softens her face and gives him a smile.
There is a young man, Pavlo (Yorgo Voyagis), who is very upset about what has happened and he runs out of the building. Mavrondoni is Pavlo’s father and Zorba quietly tells Basil that the man is incensed because his son is in love with the Widow. Zorba says that if Basil looks at all of the men he will see that they all “want” the Widow sexually, without love, and are angry that they cannot have her. Zorba says the only man there who can have the Widow is Basil, based on her reaction to him. Zorba really knows how to read a room.
Basil calls the idea “rubbish.” Zorba urges him to pursue the woman, calling God a “crafty devil,” an interesting contradiction in terms. implying that God is a schemer who allows for carnal satisfaction while advocating abstinence. Zorba says the deity gives a man hands to grab hold of life. They walk past the Widow’s house and Basil, in response to Zorba’s telling him to knock on her door, says he doesn’t want any “trouble.” Zorba expresses his belief that playing it safe is not really living. He says, “Life is trouble. Only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.” The “belt” represents restriction of freedom, as well as referring to having sex. But Basil is not ready for such bold action.
Zorba leads the townspeople in singing as they head with Basil to work in his mine. Basil was dressed in a suit and tie earlier and still wears dressy clothes even at the work site, which shows how different his origins are compared to the marginally clothed workers. He starts to get himself dirty as he pitches in with the heavy work needed to secure the mine from cave-ins. Some do occur and somehow Zorba survives them, chastising the other workers for running as soon as there is a rumble of noise. The kinder and gentler Basil is grateful no one was hurt, and is not the “capitalist” that Zorba says he needs to be, which suggests some ruthlessness is a requirement to be successful in business.
Zorba finds out that the trees on the side of the mountain belong to a monastery, and he hatches a plan to harvest them. He reddens his face and surprises a couple of the priests who think they saw the devil. After scaring them, Zorba washes his face, then leaves branches in the form of a cross and places the religious object in a large jug of wine, possibly to show God is still there to protect the monks. The clergymen indulge themselves in this heavenly gift, and Zorba ingratiates himself with them by joining in their celebration.
Zorba returns to Basil warning the Englishmen that Zorba is basically a wild card that could ruin him. But Basil says he’ll take that “chance.” Zorba brightens at Basil’s words since it shows that Basil’s “courage” is emerging, and it is contagious. Zorba starts to dance to the point of exhaustion, which he says is necessary when a man is “full” and needs to let out that fullness or else he will “burst.” He then relates how he deals with life’s horrors. He says that when his three-year-old son died Zorba danced, and although others called him “mad,” (that word is repeated in the film) he says it was the only way to ease the “pain.” It is not mourning that helps Zorba deal with death, but instead it is feeling alive that sustains him.
Zorba makes a model of the mountain out of sand and tells Basil he has made friends with the monks who own the mountain. He wants to bring the trees down on suspended cables to help reinforce the mine and eventually to build ships. He says they can have their own ship and sail around the world. Basil wonders if he is moving ahead too “fast” with his vision. Zorba says it’s a lie that the older a person gets he welcomes death as a means to rest. He says that he has “enough fight in me to devour the world.” The image he uses is one of appetite for physical satisfaction. He says he has little time, suggesting that he wants to drain all he can out of mother earth, and he probably sees Basil as the means to reach his goal. Basil gives him until Christmas to enact his plan, as if it is a gift that can then be unwrapped.
After Zorba tries to discover the right angle to set up his conveyance system on the mountain, he visits Basil’s room and discovers, despite Basil’s attempts at concealment, that the Widow sent his umbrella back to him along with Christmas cookies. Of course, Zorba wants Basil to press his advantage with the woman. Zorba says that to not go with a woman to bed if she invites him is an unforgivable sin. He says a Turk told him this fact. Basil points out that Greeks and Turks don’t talk to each other, they only fight, and there is nothing wrong with fighting for one's country. Zorba’s life has caused him to become cynical about patriotism. He tells Basil that the Englishman only knows what his brain tells him, but his body is “dumb.” Zorba seems to be saying that Basil never actually experienced war, only read about it, and so is not truly knowledgeable. Zorba points to scars on his body and says he did horrible things in war, and now only evaluates people as individuals, not citizens of nations. In the end even what one does in life, whether for good or bad, results only in death, and each person turns into “food for worms.” We have already heard how Zorba wants to keep death away from him as much as possible.
Zorba’s attitude toward women wavers between sexism and compassion. He says that they are “weak creatures” that give everything they have if a man places a hand on a female breast. It’s a cringe-worthy attitude in our present day. Zorba and Basil visit Hortense and Zorba gives her a drawing he made of her in the image of a mermaid in control of her four admirals. But Madame Hortense looks run down and confesses to Basil that at her age, “one is never well.” Zorba chases her around the room to tickle her, but she falls, showing how she can’t share Zorba’s defiance against the ravages of time. Zorba tries to give her hope saying that there is a doctor who can make her feel like she is in her twenties again, and Zorba will get some of his medicine for her. He is desperate not to capitulate to the inevitability of human mortality. Hortense talks about how she was in various parts of the world when she was younger and mentions her former lovers. Hortense is tired, and Basil tucks her in so she can rest. She tells Zorba that in her dreams she is twenty again. Zorba is jealous of her past romances and is disappointed that she spoiled his plans with her for the evening. He is cruel by dismissing her as a “dirty old cow,” which is again a way of distancing him from aging and death.
Outside, the church bells ring, announcing the start of Christmas Eve mass and Basil wants to attend. Zorba is frustrated, saying that Basil is wasting his youthful energy. Basil declares that he is different from Zorba and must go his own way, which shows the desire for personal freedom. But Zorba thinks he is denying life’s offerings. He alters the focus of Christianity on the spiritual and moves it to the carnal by dismissing the idea of the virgin birth and says that if Joseph didn’t have sex with Mary there would be no Jesus. For Zorba, salvation comes from indulging one’s passions. As Basil heads for the church, Zorba’s witty line is, “On a deaf man’s door, you can knock forever,” illustrating how he can’t get through to Basil.
By using his mountain model, Zorba believes he
has found the right angle to carry the trees. Basil gives him all the money he
can afford to buy and return the supplies necessary for the job. Zorba is
dismissive of Hortense as he sets off on his errand, even as she asks that he
remember her. Basil consoles her like a gentleman again, this time offering a
parasol to protect her from the sun as he used an umbrella to shield the Widow
from the rain.
Basil encounters the Widow on the road, but only nods toward her, not making any overture despite her sending him the cookies. It shows his reticence in engaging in anything that resembles Zorba’s sexual aggressiveness. But, she has shown an interest, and he is on the verge of allowing a missed opportunity to enjoy life in other than an intellectual way.
In contrast, Zorba, who was supposed to buy the supplies and return quickly, is out on the town, and is miffed when the young bar woman named Lola (Eleni Anousaki) at a club calls him grandpa. He uses Basil’s money to order champagne and buy her a whole basket of flowers to win her attention. She follows him out of the club and they spend the night in a hotel. Zorba sends a letter back to Basil about what has transpired, and Basil is very angry, writing a letter telling him to return immediately. Zorba’s desire to live life to the fullest does not take into account his age. Thus, he acts in a pathetic and unethical manner, using someone else’s funds selfishly to obtain physical pleasure and buying attention to boost his ego, while at the same time scorning death by taking up with a young woman.
Hortense has heard that Zorba sent a letter, but she has vision troubles (literally and figuratively, since she can’t see Zorba’s varying dedication to her), so she is unable to read it. Basil, the man of compassion, is unable to tell her of Zorba’s sexual escapades, so he invents language that expresses Zorba’s missing Hortense, and his desire to be with her forever. Hortense is ready to prepare for a wedding, and it is sad to observe her delusion as she asks Basil to witness the nuptials.
Basil has a Hamlet moment, trying to make himself commit to taking action. He starts to mimic Zorba a little by doing dance moves and strumming the santouri. Basil no longer looks prim and proper. He appears more like one of the Greek peasants now, with an open shirt, ruffled hair, and an unshaven face. It appears as if the Greek part of him is trying to win over his personality. The young Pavlo is at the Widow’s home in the dark as she sings a song. She sees him and he has a love letter for her, but she tells him to go away. He tosses his letter to her but then leaves as the dog barks and his father, Mavrondoni, approaches. The Widow throws the letter at Mavrondoni’s feet, and Pavlo tries to get it away from his father before he reads his son’s professions of love for the woman. Mavrondoni then smacks his son. There is a strange kind of jealousy over the same woman going on here which fuels this conflict between the two.
Basil finally commits and visits the Widow, who has a gun handy because she realizes the sexual danger she may find herself in. But after seeing Basil, she opens her door to him, which can be a metaphor for allowing herself to being physically approachable when it comes to Basil. The two go to her bedroom, but she begins to cry, most likely because she is overwhelmed with emotion at the loss of intimacy since losing her husband. Basil thinks he has caused her to be upset and is ready to leave, but she tells him to stay. They kiss passionately. At first Basil seems unsure as to whether he should continue, and the Widow then feels vulnerable at exposing her nakedness to him. But he shows his affection for her by hugging her and they go to bed. All of this loving communication is through body language since they don’t know each other’s language, which shows how genuine are their feelings for each other that they transcend obstacles.
Some of the men of the town are with Pavlo who, fittingly, is playing solitaire, which echoes his loneliness. (Don’t these men have any other women on the island to connect with?) They whisper to him, supposedly telling him that Basil is with the Widow. They send Pavlo into a jealous panic, probably because they can’t have the Widow, as Zorba said, and so want to cause her anguish. But, instead of going to the Widow’s house, Pavlo, devastated by the news that the one he loves is with another man, drowns himself. They carry the youth’s body past the Widow’s house, and begin to throw rocks at it, as if she is the cause of Pavlo's death.
Zorba returns and has gifts for everyone, including Hortense. Basil says he better have a wedding gown for her and he admits he couldn’t hurt the woman by telling her what Zorba was really up to. Zorba is not happy about this fact, but he says he has the supplies they need to carry out his plan. Zorba looks silly as he dyed his hair dark so Lola would not feel embarrassed about being with an older man, another attempt at trying to stay young despite the facts of life. Basil can’t stay angry at the “incorrigible” Zorba as he is amused by his shenanigans, but he still feels inhibited about saying where he was the night before.
The Widow tries to attend Pavlo’s funeral but is blocked by Mavrondoni. The townspeople, led by the men, chase, surround, and throw stones at the Widow, and Mavrondoni gives the order to have her killed. This attributing men's problems to the seductive power of women goes back all the way to Adam and Eve, which shows how the demonization of women is so entrenched, and how men do not take responsibility for their own actions. Basil can’t break through the crowd to reach the Widow, and sends word to Zorba, who arrives and wrestles the knife out of the hand of the man ordered to kill the Widow. Zorba may take advantage of women’s desires for his own purposes, but he obviously wants to prevent violence against them after seeing and being part of it during his time fighting a war. He tries to lead her away from the crowd, but Mavrondoni grabs her and cuts her throat, killing her. This scene reminds me of the movie Psycho, which shows how men lust for women, then feel degraded by that desire, especially if it is thwarted, and subsequently penetrate women violently with knives instead of with their sexual organs. Apparently, the town allows this atrocity to take place without retribution. The scene of the Widow’s death is very traumatizing for the viewer, and what follows seems almost anti-climactic. The scene shows the clash between restricted and unrestricted behavior, which is at the center of the story.
Later Zorba is angry about why people die, especially the young, and he tells Basil that despite all of his books and learning, he can’t answer that question. Basil only offers that books talk of men agonizing over death. Zorba’s response is, “I spit on their agony!” Zorba sees no help in self-indulgent ruminating about the loss of others without an explanation for why it happens. Also, one would expect that Basil would appear more emotionally affected by the death of the Widow.
Hortense shows up on the porch of Basil’s cabin where she has been waiting in the cold for Zorba. She is angry that she has been made a fool of since she thought he planned to marry her. Zorba says quietly to Basil that he started this problem. Zorba goes along with the marriage scenario, saying he has commissioned a wedding dress made with pearls and gold. Once he gets started on his tales he keeps ramping up the exaggerations. He even agrees to becoming engaged. Zorba is used to charming his way out of situations by not being necessarily honest.
It is now Easter, and Hortense has become ill. Zorba tends to her, again trying to spare her any anxiety by saying she only has a cold. Knowing Hortense will die soon, the impoverished villagers are like vultures, ready to take her belongings before the government has access to her estate. She does pass away, and the residents shamelessly ransack her hotel. Zorba rescues her pet parrot since that is all he can do. He tells Basil that there will be no typical burial because Hortense was a “Frank” which does not allow her to qualify for an Eastern Orthodox burial. Zorba says it doesn’t matter to her since she is dead, but he is very sullen since death is something he can’t reconcile himself with.
There is a large event with many people to witness Zorba’s plan to deliver the trees down the mountain. It turns out to be a disaster, with the lumber supports collapsing under the increasing velocity of the descending timber. Despite the failure, Zorba and Basil enjoy food and drink meant to celebrate their success. Zorba realizes that Basil will return to England and feels that despite Basil’s reassurances, they will not see each other again. He tells Basil that the only thing the Englishman lacks is “madness,” which he says a man needs or else, “he never dares cut the rope and be free.” For Zorba, the real insanity is to tie oneself up in a conforming way of life, trading in courageous adventure for security based on fear.
Basil finally gives in to not worrying about appearing foolish and asks Zorba to teach him how to dance. Zorba laughs at what a “splendiferous” mess their project was. Basil joins him in joy at the madness of their endeavor as they dance on the beach. The world according to Zorba seems to say that no matter what one does it is better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all.
The next film is Belle de Jour.