Saturday, September 26, 2015

Grecian Formula

Film: Never on Sunday
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

Some time ago, when I reviewed Zorba the Greek, I said that if you think of Greek music, you’re thinking of the music from that film. I was only partially right. There’s actually a very good chance that you’re thinking of the title song from Never on Sunday. This is a film I knew nothing about going in, and now that I’ve seen it, I’m extremely happy that it appeared on my Oscars lists. I liked this a lot more than I’d have thought based on the premise.

Homer Thrace (director Jules Dassin) is an American tourist in Greece. He’s been brought up by a father who loved all things Greek, convinced that Greek culture at its height was the height of human civilization. Homer loves Greek philosophy more than anything. He’s come to Greece to figure out what happened—what made Greek civilization fall? How did the flower of human culture and society fade?

On his first night in Piraeus Homer encounters Illia (Melina Mercouri, who was married to Dassin), a local prostitute. He is staggered that she is a prostitute, since Illia has a number of rules on how she conducts her life. She never sets a firm price for her services, but goes more on her whim. She also won’t spend time with a man if she doesn’t like him. As the film goes on, we learn that Illia is the only local prostitute not working under the thumb of a man known only as “No Face” (Alexis Solomos), who controls where all of the women live and charges them exorbitant rent. No Face would love to have Illia under his thumb as well, but she’s far too popular with the local men and the many sailors coming through the port.

When Homer sees Illia walk out with a man named Tonio (Giorgos Foundas), he decides that she is the symbol of everything that happened to Greece. She is physically beautiful, but is also fallen into depravity. Naturally, Homer decides to rescue her from her own life. He can’t understand anything about her; she claims to love the ancient Greek tragedies, but also rewrites the stories in her own head so that nothing really bad happens in them and they all end happily. Homer tries to educate her, and eventually (you knew something like this would happen), he gets her to agree to spend two weeks exclusively with him so that he can educate her and save her from what he sees as the terrible existence she is living.

That’s where I’m going to leave the plot summary for this, because what happens is very different from what I expected based on that summary. Never on Sunday has the sort of plot that seems like you should know where it’s going to take you. And then it doesn’t. It really, really doesn’t, and I was wildly entertained by the fact that it goes to a place I didn’t expect. Even better, it actually looks like it might go where we’re thinking it will until the last 10 or 15 minutes when it goes somewhere much more honest and arrives at an ending that it both earns and deserves.

The biggest sell here, beyond the fact that the plot is far more clever than you’d think going in, is Melina Mercouri. She’s great. She reminds me a great deal of Simone Signoret both in looks and in the way she plays this role. I could easily see Signoret doing this role and handling it as well. That’s a comparison that is very much in favor of Mercouri, since I love Signoret. Illia is someone who is depicted as truly happy and who loves her life completely. She’s a joyful character and yet she is completely believable.

There isn’t a huge downside with this film. If there is one, it’s that Homer is kind of a self-possessed douchebag. He’s convinced that it’s his job to save Illia and that only he can do it. He’s also convinced that he has the answers for everyone’s problems despite the fact that he doesn’t seem to have an answer to his own. I say this is a problem with the film, but I mean that only relatively. By the time we get to the end, we have a much better understanding of Homer Thrace, and the ending handles him perfectly.

I liked this movie a lot. I like it even more because I wasn’t really expecting anything out of it.

Why to watch Never on Sunday: It’s hard not to love Melina Mercouri in this and it sticks the ending perfectly.
Why not to watch: Homer is kind of a dick.


  1. Every time I see a reference to Greek plays, I think of Melina Mercouri's interpretation of Medea, especially that look of triumph on her face when the actors walk on stage to bow to the audience, proving that they didn't really die, it was all staged by Medea, and now they're going to the seashore.

    It always puts a smile on my face.

    Have you seen any of the films based on Greek plays - notably Elektra, The Trojan Women and Iphigenia, all with Irene Pappas? They're all great!

    1. It could almost be argued that Illia is a manic pixie dream girl with her interpretations of Greek tragedies. She's one of the rare ones I like, though.

      I have not seen those other films. Should I add them to the ever-growing list?

    2. The Trojan Women features Katharine Hepburn as Hecuba, Vanessa Redgrave as Andromache, Genevieve Bujold as Cassandra and Irene Pappas as Helen. It's a WOW!

      The others are good too. And you can't close the book on Irene Pappas until you've seen Elektra.

    3. Fair enough. I've added 'em to the list.

  2. I'm a little less enthusiastic, but both »Never on sunday« and »Elektra« are well worth watching:

    1. I haven't seen Elektra, but I definitely liked Never on Sunday more than you did.