Today the death was announced of the prolific Greek Composer Mikis Theodorakis, at the age of 96. The Greek flag above the Acropolis was flown at half mast, whilst the Parliament observed a minute’s silence and three days of national mourning was declared by the Prime Minister. The Greek President, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, hailed him as a “Pan-Hellenic personality” who was also “a universal artist, an invaluable asset of our musical culture”. He wrote over a thousand major classical works, including Operas, Ballets and symphonies, but it was his film music that put him on the popular world stage.
I had never heard of him untill one night in 1974 when I had a remarkable cinema experience.
There is always something magical about going to a cinema in a foreign land. Never did I feel that more than on a hot and balmy August night in the mid 1970’s when I first saw the film “Zorba the Greek” Now, I am not in the habit of seeing a movie when on holiday but I couldn’t resist the little open air cinema in the Greek town of Heraklion on the Island of Crete.
Little did I realise that night that I had stumbled into a minute bit of cinema and political history in the making. “Zorba the Greek” – released in 1964, was adapted from the book of the same name written by the Greek national literary hero Nikos Kazantzakis. Born in this small seaside hamlet, he now lies beneath a modest monument on a hill high above the town.
“Zorba” is one of those late sixties black and white films that looked ancient the day it was released, complete with dancing dots and scratches on the image and something not quite right about the sound throughout the screening.
But no matter – I was here to see the story of a young English bookish character (played by Alan Bates) arriving in Greece to revive the fortunes of an inherited dormant Lignite mine and his belief in himself. On arriving in the Athens port of Piraeus he meets Zorba, (played by Antony Quinn) a local character who spies an opportunity of work from this strange Englishman. They form a shaky alliance. Throughout a tortuous adventure of getting the Lignite Mine up and running they form a deepening bond as Zorba teaches him about life, love and most importantly, how to Dance!
The screening of this film, on this night, in this cinema would have been unremarkable were it not for the fact that Greece had just emerged from nine years of military rule by a Junta who seized power in a coup in 1967.
They were a nasty lot – as they always are. Devoid of humour or humanity, they tolerated no opposition. One such opponent, the left wing Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, dared to speak out against the Junta. As always, this pissed them off greatly – so, like an Hellenic Taliban, they passed a law stating that his music could not be played in Greece – ever again. Theodorakis wrote the score for “Zorba the Greek”; consequently the film could not be shown in Greece.
This night, was the first screening of the “Zorba” in nearly a decade.
The atmosphere was electric. I had never heard such noises in an auditorium before. People were shouting, clambering over seats, greeting each other with hugs and kisses. Cold beer and Ouzo was handed forward over two rows of seats, friendly insults were exchanged over ten. I had several bottles thrust into my hands during the evening.
Smoking, miraculously, was still allowed; the blue haze drifted into the branches of the trees that hung motionless above us, festooned with strings of coloured light bulbs. The fragrance of Jasmine was strong in the warm night air. A slow hand-clap began; signifying the audience’s demand that the film begin. There was no time table in this sort of establishment.
The unseen projectionist began his magic.
The lights in the branches dimmed, but instead of the noise dying down, it increased; with whistles and cheers and shouts as the first black and white frames with the titles, flickered on the screen.
Then, like an unexpected drop in the wind, there was a few moments of silence suddenly replaced by the first chords of Bouzouki music that echoed on the open air walls.
Well! – The entire cinema audience erupted in a cacophony of screams and whoops and applause for the music they had been denied all those years.
I doubt I heard more than a dozen words of the film that night. When there was just dialogue, the audience talked and gossiped but when there was a single musical note, the audience’s enthusiasm knew no limits. Old women dressed entirely in black sat with cheeses, olives and breads in their skirt laps, ferociously eating, toothlessly laughing at the film; men stood in the space between the seats and screen, arms on each others’ shoulders, dancing in the traditional Greek style mimicking the actors in the film. Young girls and boys, under the cover of the festive excitement, stood in little groups by the trees, secretly seducing each other. All manner of winged insects populated the beam between projector and screen.
But it was the music that everyone had come for. As Zorba and the Englishman danced away their woes on the beach after the disastrous end to their venture, so too did the good people of Heraklion, in that little open air cinema, dance away the last vestiges of a Junta’s ridiculous ban of a composer’s music.
Before anyone could believe it; the film was over.
As the lights came up, half the audience was already out the door carrying their party atmosphere out into the sleepy town.. Some stood around talking enthusiastically. I found myself part of a group who insisted I joined them for food and drink. I eventually crawled out of a taverna as dawn inched up over Kazantzakis’s tomb wondering two things: where was my hotel and why couldn’t every night at the cinema be like this?