Does life imitate art, or does art imitate life? That is the question when it comes to the iconic portrayal of Alexis Zorbas by Mexican-American acting legend, Anthony Quinn.
Speaking on the latest episode of the Ouzo Talk Podcast, Sydney University’s Sir Nicholas Laurantos Chair in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Professor Vrasidas Karalis, explains how Quinn ‘created’ the character of Zorba for the 1964 Michael Cacoyannis film, Zorba the Greek.
The film – and Quinn’s portrayal of the titular character – would for many become the first introduction to Greece and Greeks and is arguably still a defining role for modern Greek culture.
But according to Karalis during the wide-ranging Ouzo Talk discussion, while the portrayal does utilise elements of the Greek sensibility, it was ultimately a creation of Quinn’s.
“It’s part of our identity I think – he created an image of being Greek,” says Karalis.
“I think the interesting thing about Anthony Quinn as an actor in general is that he was always himself, and that gave him a certain authenticity when he performed his roles.
“His Greek role was very important I think – the Greek persona. The mask was very good because it suited him. He was a multicultural actor from Mexico, America, South America and I think somewhere in the Middle East.
“If you see him in his movies in Italy for example, it’s the same thing. He’s the perfect Italian there. I think it’s a great ability of the actor to become the role.”
Often criticised as a less-than-flattering depiction of Greeks, the character of Zorba has for many come to represent many negative attributes including excess and frivolity. But Karalis insists that this is a superficial reading of the character and the story – a story which goes much deeper in the original text written by Nikos Kazantzakis.
“Kazantzakis didn’t try to create a pure type as you understand,” says Karalis.
“Don’t forget that the Greeks have a very pessimistic element as well – a melancholic element in their character.
“We must not forget that the Greeks are not simply the exuberant people dancing in the streets, but they have a complete other side to themselves which is melancholy.
“Being born in an Anglo-Saxon world, you try to find Calvinist Puritanism everywhere – human beings exist as either good or bad, and the one fights against the other.
“In reality, goodness, and badness exist within us – the human psyche.
“The greatest psychologist is the first writer; Homer. Homer gave you Achilles. Achilles is the main character for Greeks to this day. Achilles is arrogant, defiant, and a sook at the same time. He’s fighting, and then at the moment he sees that there’s a danger, he disappears, he feels insulted, he feels ashamed. But at the same time, he’s brave, and courageous, and tenacious. He’s both of that.
“We have to accept this idea that comes from, if I may say, ‘Western Europe’, that we are purely this or purely that – like John Wayne always being good and the enemy is bad. It doesn’t always apply to these characters. They’re both at the same time
“What the ancient Greeks believed in was harmony,” says Karalis.
“You cannot be purely good. You cannot be purely bad. You have to balance the one against the other. ‘Isoropia’. What is bad in Greek is ‘excess’. It’s not the ‘evil’ element that the ‘West’ usually recognises, but for the Greeks the element of bad – or ‘kakon’ – is something that is excessive.
“The Christian concept of ‘hamartia’, which translates into English as ‘sin’, means failure. It doesn’t mean ‘sin’. Sin is a Latin term which means ‘crime’. For the Greeks, a good person can also be ‘harmatolos’.
The Ouzo Talk episode (Zorba the Greek - manuscrupt, movie and music), also saw renowned Sydney Olympics conductor/composer, George Ellis join the discussion, providing insights into the film’s music, composed by Mikis Theodorakis.