Zorba the Greek: The Tragic Layer Underneath Zorba’s Feigned Happy-Go-Lucky Style and Dancing

There is a deeper and more tragic layer to the famous movie Zorba the Greek (1964) with Anthony Quinn as Zorba. It’s not about unalloyed good-natured buffoonery or high spirits alone, as everyone seemed to think.

Zorba makes a tragic and transformative spontaneous confession about his past in a dialog with Basil (Alan Bates the introverted British character with whom he takes up).

Like every soulful human who wishes to stay happy and relaxed in life, Zorba also has his tragic fate on his back. Zorba is no different, he also has a dark past. His crimes and atrocities were endless when he fought for his country against the Turks and Bulgarians.

As he tells Basil that he killed people, burnt villages and raped women. But he puts all this in his tragic past and tries to restore peace in his life. He is married but has left his family behind.

He is trying to some extent to kill his inner pain, just revealed to Basil, through the famous dancing:

Sirtaki or syrtaki (Greek: συρτάκι) is a dance of Greek origin, choreographed for the 1964 film Zorba the Greek. It is a recent Greek folk dance, a mixture of syrtos and the slow and fast rhythms of the hasapiko dance.

The dance and the accompanying music by Mikis Theodorakis are also called Zorba’s dance, the Zorba or “the dance of Zorba.” The dance has become popular in Greece and one that is identified with the Greeks.

The name sirtaki comes from the Greek word syrtos—from σύρω (τον χορό), which means “drag (or lead the dance)”—a common name for a group of traditional Greek dances of so-called “dragging” style, as opposed to pidikhtós (πηδηχτός), a hopping or leaping style. Despite that, sirtaki incorporates both syrtos (in its slower part) and pidikhtós (in its faster part) elements.

Thus Zorba the Greek is a tragic story of a broken man—Zorba—trying to dance himself into an anesthetized state. It’s not about Falstaffian “clowning around.” To a large extent, Zorba is trying to run away from himself or “jump over his own shadow,” so to speak, but this must fail because hyperactivity of his type won’t help him from re-colliding with his life and his past.