These days, apparently, the Academy award for best cinematography isn’t even worth televising. But there was a time, lasting about 30 years, that the Academy gave out two awards every year to cinematographers, one for films shot in color and one for black and white. One of the last films to win the black and white award was Michael Cacoyannis’ Zorba the Greek from 1964. The award went to director of photography Walter Lassally. I mention all of this because, to non-cinephiles, black and white photography often signals that something is dated, slow and boring. That’s a misconception but it couldn’t be any less true than it is in Zorba the Greek, a film that still feels as virile and vital as Anthony Quinn, in the title role, dancing and leaping through the air.
Based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis (who also wrote The Last Temptation of Christ), Zorba tells the story of a stuffy Englishman named Basil (kind of on the nose), played by Alan Bates, who travels to a rural village in Crete to open a mine on land owned by his family. At the port, he meets Zorba, who becomes his guide and, eventually, his friend. Basil and Zorba’s arrival in the village, though, creates shock waves that go tragically from minor to major. Cacoyannis, who also wrote the screenplay, relates events less in the form of a single narrative thread than in an array of incidents that slowly but inevitably amass.
The notably leftist Kazantzakis certainly would have known what sort of anti-colonialist allegory he was building with his tale of a moneyed Westerner causing unforeseen destruction merely by his arrival in a poor, Mediterranean town. Cacoyannis is not blind to these themes, either. But Zorba the Greek finally has a more positive take on its main concern, the nature and value of friendship.