Basil, an introverted aspiring and blocked writer of Anglo Greek parentage, returns to Crete to revive an inherited lignite mine. He comes into contact with Zorba (Anthony Quinn), an exuberant old timer with an overflowing zest for life, who becomes his friend, business manager and mentor.
The film is memorable for bringing to life the rustic lives of the mountain folk, in an anthropological way. An adulterous woman is stoned to death. When an aging Frenchwomen dies bands of villagers descend to scavenge her belongings. A cloistered, harsh, unforgiving world enclosed by this picturesque, stone age environment. Quinn gives a powerful if unrestrained portrayal of a larger than life unlettered personality with a home spun philosophy which dwarfs the book learned Basil. Irene Papas gives an unforgettable tragic portrayal of the doomed widow. Lila Kedrova as the withered ailing courtesan, compassionately wooed by Zorba, won an Academy Award for her supporting role.
The sun drenched and sea embraced mountainous island has been beautifully captured.
This is a film with no message but the glory of life in all it's sadness and humor and the power of the spirit to negotiate stormy seas. It is about the voyage of life like a Homeric poem.
On the other hand, one can search out meanings in this deeply felt film cast in a somewhat traditional mold. One can sense the humanistic power of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel, which "almost" won a Nobel prize, akin to the works of Hugo and Zola, . The rapacious villagers represent society as it always has been, from the time of the New Testament to the passive or conniving population which let the Shoah happen. The story is a parable. Zorba is the redeeming all too rare power of compassion. He is a human being, victorious even in defeat.
He does not believe in patriotism, finding no difference between Greeks and Turks, against whom in his younger days he fought. His age, in the sixties, has an accumulation of wisdom gleened directly, as for example when he recalls the death of a three year son, the grief of which he extinguished by dancing himself to exhaustion. His humanity lights up the younger man's life, and the concluding dance of Zorba celebrates this wondrous occurrence. It is indeed a cry of victory, the failure of the ludicrous business project notwithstanding. Even the two tragic deaths cannot detract from this exultant flood of optimism, the primal life force. Zorba's "affair" with the aging and withered Madame Hortense is another extraordinary story.
Bosley Crowther's Review