from a Roman sculpture to the returning myth
This text aims to introduce the motivations of this work which is part of a linguistic and stylistic research on the modes of digital publishing for which we have implemented: an online user interface and a ebook to encourage navigation and orientation in the “deep sea” of the myth of Dionysus: its meaning, its possible interpretation, its life among us. In reality it is a prototype built to represent how the nature of a work of art can always be the gateway to discover the world that generated it. We chose Dionysus out of passion, because we came in contact with an expert in Greek history who had been our guide and because of the inexplicable attraction that a marble statue buried by time and rubbles have had on us.
Can a piece of marble look people in the eye? Yes and that is what happened in Nola. An artist unknown to us sculpted the statue thousands of years ago, other artists, using today's tools and methodologies to motivate and attract generations far away from that time, have attempted to interpret, for the general public, what scholars have discovered in an interweaving of dense and articulated stories. As you will see, with the patience to follow us, Dionysus adapts himself very well to this experiment because many are the distortions that have been made to bend the power of his story to the needs of the hegemonic sides of society. Our aim was to generate a new context in which emotions can stimulate interest and lead to a cognitive experience in favor of knowledge. In order to do this, we tried to put in place differentiated and heterogeneous knowledge and, at the same time, amalgamated by a strong project with a precise strategy and purpose that would indicate the final goal as a constant point to which everyone should always aim.
Artists, scholars, technicians, economists and marketing experts have worked together to build, within the limits of an experimental prototype, a concrete proposal starting from a hall of the Archaeological Museum of Nola, avoiding to build the digital copy of the real museum, but giving life to the communicative projection "all-round" of one of his works. "All-round" for us means "by any means": technological or conceptual, prospective or stylistic, with the aim of "revealing" what the work contains. "Unveiling" is precisely the literal translation of the ancient Greek alethiea which was the seeking of truth. A pre-Socratic world born a few kilometers from Nola, in the Cilento where Parmenides and Zeno worked. We tried to take all visitors by the hand and accompany them on a journey through more efficient and knowledge oriented paths.
Today we know that knowledge is not an accumulation, but a selection and reconfiguration of experiences, this requires each of us, along the way, to make choices. Each choice in turn requires a capacity for orientation as well as competence in the use of the "compass". A wrong approach could generate confusion in those who are new to the subject, and could be the cause of a loss of interest or a permanent departure from the competitive advantages that culture generates in a community.
The user interface, which we have imagined both in the ebook and in the online application, does not prohibit free navigation, but contains indications of different logical paths not necessarily chronological. In the last section visitors discover how to reach Dioniso simply starting from a book, a movie, a piece of music. With the utmost respect for the rigor and sacredness of the theme and place, the route can be an approach to the work as it emerged from archaeological excavations, but also a departure from the work so that you can observe the cult and myth of Dionysus from a distance and from different points of view. If it were a photograph, we could say that the proposed case study provides the visitor with long optics to observe closely small details of the cult and myth of the Greek god and at the same time short focal points to be able to embrace uses, customs and behaviors belonging to a civilization very different from ours.
In 2003 Umberto Eco wrote a very interesting essay on how to create a museum from a single work, telling the context. He gave an example about the Venus of Botticelli, our source of inspiration. We tried to put that methodological suggestion into practice, building a path to approach the sculpture of Dionysus preserved in the Historical Archaeological Museum of Nola.
Losing your balance
Dionysus is, for many of us, synonymous with orgies, wild dances, drunkenness, wicked and perverted life. Frederick Otto, one of the greatest scholars of Dionysus, claimed that the story of the myth has very often been manipulated and consequently the various versions of the myth are completely alien to the reality of the ancient Greeks. That is why we have tried, following in the footsteps left by the great scholars, to reconstruct how an ancient Greek could have interpreted that myth. Our story will be deliberately "upsetting", because of the deep conviction that knowledge originates from a loss of balance and its subsequent recomposition, which is a traumatic process.
It means being able to discover that what you think you know is not what you think you know, this is because it is disharmony that pushes us to reflect, those who work on the construction of meaning for visitors to a museum must learn to recognize what generates this imbalance and how to guide the recomposition of a mental scheme that supports the new framework of relationships, reconfiguring old information with new information in a new scheme.
The desire to restore equilibrium transforms emotion into interest, the primary condition for the realization of "harmony" which is nothing more than having succeeded in embedding the reflection process into a new framework of meanings.
This is the path of a cognitive experience. The senses are no longer the gateway to the road that leads to knowledge, but stimuli for action and the reworking of one's own context enriched by the new interaction with an unknown world.
You stumble, of course, some of your beliefs lose value, but you proceed towards a stronger, cohesive and rational structure. An accomplished world without elements of uncertainty would not be a world capable of producing experiences.
This was supported by John Dewey in his "Art as experience", but it was already implicit in the term that Aristotle used as the starting point of the cognitive process: thaumàzein, too often translated as "wonder" and used to justify special effects and technology, aimed only at themselves. The word in Greek contained the idea of fear, loss of balance, disturbance, and the reconfiguration of one's own experiences towards a new knowledge. Knowledge is a conquest, it is not injected or swallowed; the task of those who handle it in favor of the people is only to know how to open doors closed for years, the opportunities that the digital environment provides for this are enormous and still unexplored.
A wonderful example is this fragment of Eugenio Montale from “The Lemon Trees".
You realize that in silences
things yield and almost betray
their ultimate secrets.
At times, one half expects
to discover an error in Nature,
the still point of reality,
the missing link that will not hold,
the thread we cannot untangle
in order to get at the truth.
You look around. Your mind seeks,
makes harmonies, falls apart
in the perfume, expands
when the day wearies away.
There are silences in which one watches
in every fading human shadow
something divine let go.
An error in Nature, the ring that doesn't hold, allows one to reach the truth. Better than any theory, the verses synthesize the work we have tried from a theoretical point of view to build the audiovisual modules and the paths to be proposed as a representation on the net starting from the museum of Nola. We had the scientific expertise of Mario Cesarano, archaeologist of Mibac and expert of the Greek world, who like many of his colleagues has dedicated his life to study and reconstruct the relationships of cause and effect that may exist between literature and architecture, between sources and evidence of civil life. Those relations, that hypothetical-deductive logic had led the scholar to construct meanings; from that point on, a team included those who had the task of translating the meanings into a symbolic signifying structure. That culture had to become sensitive, audible, visible, interactive, in a perceptible word. To give a body to ethereal matter.
A complex work, as you can see, of which only you readers will be able to judge the results, a research due to avoid improvisations that have migrated from the world of technology to that of culture and of which today even the institutions in charge denounce the lack of concrete results.
From a Roman artifact up to us
Let's try to trace the genesis of this production. We wanted to construct a conceptual map of the topics that we had studied and discussed together and to highlight the possible correlations directly or indirectly related to the subjects of Dionysus and his myth. Needless to say, these are almost infinite or at least adaptable to an extremely large space. Historical finds, paintings, documents, classical literature, but there is also contemporary literature that deals with that myth and that makes the conceptual map changeable over time. We started from the sculpture of Nola, from its territory to the slopes of Vesuvius, Dionysus is the privileged center of our investigation, as the solar system is for the Milky Way, but theoretically in a map like this each segment could be a new center. Infinite space has no center by definition. At that point, around the new center our map could reconfigure and reconstruct a path of sense and meaning.
At the origin of everything there is an archaeological excavation without which the statue would not exist. We are in a land rich in history and traditions at the slopes of Vesuvius where Dionysus built his second home beyond Mount Cythion. There is the discovery of a sumptuous villa that extends over such a large area that one could imagine it was the residence of the divine Augustus (Tacitus reminds that he died in Nola, at the foot of Vesuvius). There are the consequences of the great eruption that sealed for us all these wonders so that we could, millennia later, rediscover the archaeological evidence and rebuild a civilization.
The world knows Pompeii and a little less Herculaneum, which were, at the time when the statue of Dionysus silently watched over the great villa, the interface with the sea, trade, the port. The areas where the aristocracy of the time resided were in the inland. It is in one of these areas that two statues of extraordinary beauty, now preserved in the Historical Archaeological Museum of Nola have been found. One has been dismembered and certainly depicts Dionysus; the other, perfectly intact and still placed in the niche that contained it, depicts a woman with a peplum, the dress that women wore in classical Greece. No attribute allows us to identify this woman, but her closeness to Dionysus led scholars to think that she was Ariadne, the wife to whom the God of wine, dance and theatre has always been faithful. The woman par excellence.
So we are in the presence of a statue, or rather two, we are in front of the path of excavation and discovery and in front of the hypotheses made around their original location; we are in the presence of a deity migrated from the Greek world and came in Roman times to declare its supremacy over the irrational of man, we are in front of a myth: the system of transmission of civil values. Faced with wine, with the archaic idea of the illusion of abandoning oneself to a world without rules, we are faced with love as ecstasy. We are facing the only marriage with a high level of marital fidelity in the history of Olympus: that of Dionysus and Ariadne, we are facing the sacred. All this, and much more, obviously starting with a sculpture. If there were no stories, apart from its value as an archaeological find, it could only be an ornament and instead we will try to make it the fuse of an engaging investigation.
So we started to go through a part of the numerous rivulets that cross that section of knowledge, to build a path of approach to the civilization that had produced such things. Along the way, for the only part that we report here, you will encounter finds preserved in the most important museums in the world, and " stopping points" among the great contemporary artists. Dionysus is a route that connects Campania to Attica, Italy to Germany and that crosses time: from Euripides to Billy Eliot, from Socrates to Pasolini, from Plato to Thomas Mann. We are confident that each work of the past is only a trampoline, a platform from which to leap towards more open horizons; for each of us the leap could end up in a cinema where Zorba the Greek, or Theorem or Death in Venice is projected.
Telling Dionysus means telling about the myth, about worship, about man's need to seek truth outside of reason alone and it also means dealing with the many distortions to which that myth has been subjected by Christian tradition first and then by psychoanalytic interpretation. The idea that intrigued us was to create an object that could be used by all, telling Dionysus how an ancient Greek, a Greek woman, a maenad, an initiate in the rite could have perceived it, doing justice to the countless legends built by art. Political motives, censorship of the metaphysics of the people, social control, a priori rejection or attempt to make it an archetype of behavior Dionysus was an ante litteram target of the mud war.
Too many are the simplifications, errors and distortions that have led to interpret the world of Dionysus as lewd and impure that of his followers. In the Greek world, the god is conceived by men in their own image and likeness (the opposite of what we who know Genesis think), relegated to an irrational world in which all codes can coexist. Therefore, God is good and evil, light and darkness, day and night, in a nature that, having not been created, is the immutable background of existence. Going back to that way of thinking for a moment means rewinding the tape of the history of thought in a short time, it means plunging into a temporary illusion that only the theatre is able to reconstruct. But Dionysus is god of theatre and together with him we have reconstructed some stories to tell of a world in which the adjective "different" has a meaning that has nothing to do with wrong, perverse, unnatural, blasphemous. Enjoy the show.
The video stories
We have produced 11 audiovisual modules (whose title is in bold) which, with Mario Cesarano's narration, retrace, starting from the discovery of the statue (Dionysus and Vesuvius), the analogies with the "born twice" deity ( The Birth of Dionysus) from the belly of Semele, his natural mother, to his father Zeus, in whose thigh the fetus was sewn. So for The Wine: medicine for every pain, as Euripides defines it, or delight of men, as Homer defines it. Just the opposite of the drunkenness that tradition has presented us with, it was an instrument to measure man's ability not to lose his lucidity. There is nothing in Greek tradition that can be "out of measure", the expression kata metron, taken up in Roman times with est modus in rebus, was one of the keys to eudemonia, a word that we translate as "happiness" and that in their civilization was the guiding spirit, the realization of one's own talent within the limits of one's possibilities, because beyond those would have been frustration. Dionysus himself had stated that the wise men should limit themselves to only three jars of wine mixed with water before getting up at the end of a symposium: "the first of health, the second of eros and pleasure, the third of sleep". Beyond this quantity, drinking leaves honour to the god to go towards violence, shouting, racket, madness, brawl. The quote, a very resolute prescription, comes from a text by Eubulio: Athenian politician of great prestige.
The statue has its own iconology, wine and grapes are characteristic of Dionysus, but another sign that undoubtedly attributes to the god the discovery is The Panther of which we describe the characteristics, origins and mythological motivations. Dionysus is the god of mutant identity, of ambiguity, escapes any definition and any stereotype (The Mask). He is divine and animal, human and immortal, sweet and cruel, serene and mad, joyful and furious, affectionate and possessed. He can bring man to enthusiasm, caressing him with the gift of wine and a moment later he can annihilate him with beastly and implacable violence. Ecstasy is the game that proposes us: to go ex stasis, being possessed by the god. You can be led to bliss but you can also cross the door that opens a nightmarish world, where the human being is lost forever, trespassing in the parallel dimension of delirium. The cult during the festivities of Dionysus gave life to a structure (The Theatre), in which the people participated to build and find themselves around the founding values of their civilization
Tradition wants orgies and maenads to be the lascivious image of a decadent civilization, in which the sexual customs and life of a man and a woman were linked to the whim and will of the gods. Olympus was certainly not an example of conjugal fidelity, just as the escapades of Zeus (and not only his own) built many of the stories to which mortals were accustomed, but if Dionysus is mentioned, the scepter of perversion in the daily imagination belongs to him. Well, we wanted to talk about Dionysus' woman (Ariadne: the woman). The only one he loved, honoured, married, freed her from pain and relieved her of her abandonment by Theseus, escaped from wretchedness, and put civil decorum before the love of his woman. Dionysus finds her, sees her, makes her his wife, honors her and will be faithful to her all his life. How then is born the distortion that Dionysus brings with him. It is born when irrationality, the escape from the pre-constituted schemes of social conventions becomes a sin (Menads: the women) Women dance to join the god, not to look for other men as they would have us believe. This audiovisual module was built with the participation of a dancer (Rossella Iovane) and with the help of costume designer Giovanna Panico and her team of make-up artists and hairdressers. The dancer was accompanied by Maestro Pino Cesarano and Raffaele Russo on soprano sax and tammorra respectively..
All this is part of what we call Myth (The Myth)
Cult, as a whole, is part of the monumental creations of the human spirit", such as art, architecture, poetry, music, all of which are at the service of divinity. "It is one of the most grandiose languages in which humanity has expressed itself in regard to the Most Exalted, without any other reason than the need to address itself to it
Walter Frederich Otto
In ancient Greek there are two words that we both translate as "tale", one is mythos and the other is historìa, but they have very different meanings. The historìa is a story that happened to certain people in a defined time and it happened to them and only to them. It is studied and handed down, its causes are sought, the relationships of cause and effect; it is certainly a subject that can give reason for some consequences linked to today, but it is not universal, it does not belong to the whole human kind. Mythos is a story without place or time, it is used to balance the values around which a civilization realizes, its social structures, it is used to create the citizenship; it is political in the sense of building a functioning and cohesive polis. Worship is not a set of behaviors and liturgical forms aimed at capturing the benevolence of the gods, it is above all, in the case of Dionysus, the experience of the facts of the myth. Myths are the founding values of our European civilization which has taken its name from one of those.
Among the distortions we mentioned earlier, we have identified two: in The Chassis, we remove as ancient the idea of the segregated and exclusively houseworked woman and in The Memory, which is not simply the repository of a past time, of a closed era, but an active force in the present, we will try to give a non-judicial explanation to the stories that wanted to convey meanings manipulated for the use of civilizations that came later: from Medea as a serial killer to Philomena and Procne, uxoricide, albeit in self-defense. Memory in classical Greece was a divinity: Mnemosyne who had different functions in civil life: one linked to the poetics that was handed down orally the other linked to the idea of truth aletheia literally revealed, not hidden, therefore to be remembered and still one was linked to the anamnesis: the reminiscence of the events that led the present to be such.
A schema and an interface
What you see in the figure is the initial logical scheme within which we have constructed the relationships between the objects. If you find it confused you are right, but we wanted to show you how it was born to reveal the genesis of a project of reconstruction of meaning. Starting from the sculpture we have positioned vertically the eleven themes dealt with in the video stories, which are the reasons of worship, and external signs of the myth. Each theme has been linked both to pieces of literature and to paintings, vases, sculptures that already in ancient times represented the myth of Dionysus. At the beginning the scheme was only a way to visualize our logical proceeding, but later we realized that in the graph there were also contemporary artifacts that marked our epoch. I'm thinking of Theorem and Death in Venice, I'm thinking of Zorba the Greek, to stay in the field of cinema but we can continue to grow that tree to infinity. A conceptual map that has become the basis for building the navigation interface in our online applications and the layout scheme of the eBook
On the web we used the interface with a metaphor related to film. Those who want to use it can do so as a source of information directed to the logic of the connections that the authors have followed, but you can also navigate it in another way, slowly scrolling the frames as if it were a film to discover, in addition to the stories contained in each of them, also something more "between the lines". Between the headlights frames there is a buffer zone which is only a placeholder for now and which will be available in the future for further thematic insights. The book follows the same scheme: we have built a more traditional layout for a reader who will be able to browse through the videos by continuing to view the exhibits linked to each of them, or jump from one to the other with the interface at the bottom of the page, thematically linking the stories as if they were the chapters of a documentary and then using the intermediate pages as insights.
Each cultural interface, when it is drawn and created, should be able to foresee the space for what does not yet exist, because this suggests that the person who conceived it is aware that knowledge is research and that it cannot have limits. No work can be considered finished at the moment of its publication, if it wants to be part of a cognitive experience it must consider itself only a step, a small step necessary to make the next one solid.
In this case it is a methodological prototype applied to Dionysus, but it can be extended to any theme and any museum that wants to confront itself with the digital environment in which to relate what it owns.
Dionysus: the returning god
Dionysus is a god who returns, emerges more or less explicitly in the most diverse arts: first of all literature, but also figurative art and cinema, passing through music and, of course, theatre.
Among the many more recent declinations of Dionysus, we have chosen some that provide a further example of the god's long influence on Western culture and, at the same time, to mention how the perturbing encounter with Dionysus has fascinated some of the greatest artists of the last century, between literature and cinema: Thomas Mann, Luchino Visconti and Pier Paolo Pasolini, Nikos Kazantzakis, Michael Cacoyannis.
Let's think of a movie like Billy Elliot, a classic for teenagers in the 2000s. There is a crucial scene that unlocks the story, anagnorisis would have called it Aristotle, when Billy goes to London, accompanied by his father, for the audition at the Royal Opera Ballet, the most prestigious school in England, the dream of his life. It would seem that Billy's social class may be at odds with his access to the school, when the teacher, before dismissing him, asks: "What kind of feelings do you have when you dance?" Billy: "It's like I disappear... I'm a bird, I'm electricity." An answer that lives in the long tradition that Dionysus faces in his way of conceiving ecstasy in front of dance. Connecting that fragment of film to our statue through a hypothetical deductive articulation puts in direct contact two ways of representing one's inner life at a distance of millennia.
Death in Venice
The story of Gustav von Aschenbach, protagonist of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (1912), takes place under the sign of the same contamination that the arrival of Dionysus in Thebes unleashes in the Bacchae. The journey is transformed into a disturbing and revealing experience: the protagonist's attention is captured by the young Tadzio. The writer gradually falls prey to the silent and subjugating charm of the young man.
Aschenbach represents the artist of severe control, self-discipline, the cult of form: the Apollonian artist in short. Dionysian encounters see him in a position of submission and passivity, until his death on the beach. Just as Pentheus, who had to pay with his life for his obstinate refusal of the god, so the late encounter with Dionysus upsets Aschenbach, to whom only one possibility remains: to die alone, while he contemplates Tadzio walking in the sea, on the same beach where he first met his gaze.
And it is precisely the element of the gaze, rendered through the great use of the zoom, so central in Aschenbach's platonic and aestheticizing love, that becomes central in the homonymous adaptation shot by Luchino Visconti in 1971.
Glances, fascination and unhinging of rational balances are also central elements in the two works that mark 1968 by Pier Paolo Pasolini, the year in which the author published Teorema and edited the film version. According to Pasolini's own story: "Teorema was born, as if on a gold background, painted with my right hand, while with my left hand I was working to fresco a large wall (the film of the same name)".
Also in Teorema, the Dionysian presence presents itself in the dynamics of a revealing event, fascinating and upsetting at the same time. Pasolini conveys some central themes of his poetics: the return of the sacred (a theme borrowed from German romanticism see Holderlin), the critique of bourgeois ideology and body language.
The story is marked by the arrival of a mysterious Guest within a small bourgeois family in Milan. Mute, enigmatic and irresistible, the Guest takes up some characteristics of the figure of Dionysus: he represents, in fact, in the eyes of the bourgeois ideology of the family, a radical alterity, both foreign and scandalous. He is so completely devoid of mediocrity, of recognizability and vulgarity, that he cannot even think of him as a boy belonging to a small bourgeois Italian family. The return of the sacred, symbolised by the body of the young Guest and its mysterious fascination, is the instrument through which Pasolini leads his critique of the Enlightenment reason behind the bourgeois ideology: none of the members of the family can withstand the impact of this encounter with a totally different dimension, which is instead welcomed by Emilia, from the peasant world, whose existence is the only one not to be destroyed by the appearance of the Guest. To the latter is addressed the reflection of her father in which the destructive extent of her arrival emerges. After this period can follow the clip of the film ... you have therefore come to this house to destroy etc. ....
Bearer of utopian hopes, face of intoxication but also of scandal and seduction,
Dionysus' long history winds through centuries of rewriting and veiled literary, philosophical, theatrical, artistic and cinematographic emergencies: a thousand faces of a god who never stopped coming back from ancient Greece.
You seduced me God and I let myself be seduced, you raped me and prevailed.
I became an object of ridicule every day.
Everyone mocks me.
Yes, I felt the slander of many, terror around, denounce him.
All my friends watched my fall.
Maybe he'll let himself be seduced so we'll prevail on him and take our revenge on him.
You certainly came here to destroy.
In me the destruction you caused couldn't be more total.
You simply destroyed the idea that I've always had of me.
Now I can see absolutely nothing that can restore my identity.
What do you propose to me, a scandal like a civilized death, a complete loss of myself.
But how can a man accustomed to the idea of order, of tomorrow and above all of possession do this?
Zorba the Greek
To explain myself in practice I went and rediscover a film from my childhood that I would like to tell you about by steps. Zorba the Greek. A 1964 film directed by Michael Cacoyannis and based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, written in 1946 during a very turbulent period for Greece and Crete, his native island, from Turkish domination to freedom and the Republic. I am not going to refer to the novel, but only to the film and without any pretension of criticism, which I would not be able to do, but with the idea of using a work of contemporary art to try to tell the Dionysus that is still present in it and its author.
A ship is about to sail, boxes of books and trunks are loaded on board. It is clear that someone is leaving. It's pouring rain and a group of people are arguing animatedly in Greek. It seems that from the first scene the clash between the vision of ancient Greece, of an archaic vision of nature and the modern world that thinks it can dominate it, appears with the same force as the elements of nature that unleash the torrential rain. The ship fails to set sail because of a sudden storm and an English-speaking passenger translates:
We'll have to wait……
… How long?
The first scene is enough to reveal the clash that will go on until the end and feed the events of the story. The protagonist of the film is Alexis Zorba, a wanderer who appears as a deity in a tavern in the harbour, where he meets a young English writer of Greek father about to embark for Crete. The young Englishman has inherited a mine that is now out of use; he imagines that he can reactivate it so that he can also rekindle his long-dormant creative vein. Zorba immediately reveals himself as a stand-in for the god Dionysus, declaring that "Zorba" is only one of his names and listing the epithets with which he is known and identified. As Dionysus does not carry clothes in his bag, he is not a traveler like the others, he carries what is necessary to live: a santuri with which to produce his music. He proposes himself as an assistant, cook, miner and to the question "what do you do" he answers: "I have hands and head and these can be suitable for any job", because in the irrationality of a Greek god everything has the same value as its opposite. Mr Basil, that's the name of the Englishman, lets himself be persuaded and the two make a deal.
The camera lingers on the looks of the passengers in the waiting room, sly looks, disrespectful of Zorba's idea of the world, looks that consider the irrational way of life a bit crazy, looks that although they belong to people presumably with Greek passports do not belong to Homeric Greece; they are contemporary, not archaic, Christian and not Greeks. That is why in a film set in Crete, where everyone is Greek, the only Greek is Zorba. The capital letter in front of the adjective identifies an Ancient Greek compared to his contemporaries who now live in a very different civilization. Greeks are the characters of the story, Greek the beautiful widow who ignites the passions of men, Greek, even if by adoption, Madame Hortense, who saved with her graces offered to the admirals of every army the village from bombing, Greeks the priests of the Orthodox monastery, Greeks the villagers celebrated in the credits as stars and referred to as "the people of Crete". All Greeks by birth, nationality, but only Zorba, a legacy of an Olympic culture now disappeared, is Greek. From this, in my opinion, the title. Zorba the only Greek in a world of Greeks beyond the wall of modernity. In the tavern the two make a pact of collaboration, the god of Olympus begins to creep into the god of Israel. "Let's make a pact or I won't be able to come", says Zorba to the young writer: "you will command on work, on singing and dancing I command". "What does that mean?" You ask unsuspecting Mr Basil? "That I am free." It's the toast, the agreement between the two, the best testimony to the encounter between the new world and the archaic world. "May God be with us!" Exclaim English. "The devil too," answers Zorba.
The evil is never distinct from the good in Greek spirituality. If a god is to assist us, opposites will be possible and even the devil will have to be bent.Devil in ancient Greek does not exist as a supernatural being, it is an adjective that defines man as a slandererer; there is instead a demon who has a dignified very different from what Christianity attributes to him, he is a mediator between man and the divine. In the Italian language, which derives many idiomatic expressions from ancient Greek, there is: “quel ragazzo ha il demone della matematica (that boy has the demon of mathematics), “il demone della musica” (the demon of musica). A meaning very close to "talent" which is also found in eudaimonia we translate as “happiness: to bring out one's talent.
Here then Zorba sign a pact between an artist in crisis lost in the rules of reason and an intrusive divinity that pushes him towards the embrace of opposites, where a disaster can be the beginning of a triumph.
During the crossing a basket full of potatoes falls to the ground because of the rolling of the ship subjected to the waves, a glance from the god Zorba produces in the unfortunate woman only a thunderous laugh, by attracting the attention of males.. Shortly before a new signature of the god Dionysus makes the conflict clear to the spectators: a dolphin, an animal dear to the god and sung in Homeric hymns, appears on the horizon, but only Zorba notices it. "What a man you are, if you don't notice the dolphins," he says to Mr Basil.
The story continues on the island, where our two protagonists come across a first widow of many husbands, as they call her in the village, a former French dancer, Madame Ortence, who recalls the glories of the war and her action in favour of the Cretan patriots, saved from the bombardment thanks to her seductive skills with which she keeps at bay the four admirals of the allied forces and in particular the Italian admiral Canavaro, whom she remembers with particular nostalgia, so much so that she taught her parrot to constantly and obsessively repeat her name. The irrationality in her story is forced into a hypothetical-deductive logic, when she overturns conventions and assumes the end of the war as the beginning of its ruins. Lover of the four admirals and the four allied countries, at the end of the war she will be four times the widow of peace.
Zorba, like Dionysus, takes on other roles, recites, disguises himself as "I am your Canavaro" he says to flatter her, calling her Bouboulina (Laskarina Bouboulina is a patriot and heroine of the war for the independence of Greece from Turkish rule), to make her feel responsible for the salvation of Crete, even if the hand-to-hand fighting was of a different kind, and thus at least give her back the illusion of lost youth before detaching herself from her. It will be for the whole duration of the story the object of her being an illusion, like in the theatre when you believe everything, even the impossible; it will court her, paint for her the pomp of a war that made her young and powerful, invoke new times, make them seem real and possible worlds totally absurd in reality, will deceive her, making her believe in the illusion of a fake marriage that will be celebrated with all the chrisms, with a ritual as true as any theatrical performance. It is a reciprocal and voluntary illusion, the theatre precisely, the voluntary suspension of the sense of disbelief of the man of which Coleridge spoke. Just believe the same thing and that thing really exists. Zorba will support it even on the point of death. Death for a Homeric deity, however, is something very different from that of a Christian and Zorba will prove it to his English friend. For him it is only the end of a cycle and not the beginning of eternal life.
In the small village there is also another widow, beautiful and desirable. Zorba describes the character of the woman through the eyes of the men who "hate her because they can't have her" and launches into a prophecy in the original sense of the term: profemi, to speak in place of. Zorba speaks in place of the god by interpreting looks and signs as mortals are now accustomed to do, look at and interpret the gaze as a channel that leads to the mind and heart.
Yet another clash between codes, between good and evil, divided and opposed, in archaic sacredness. Zorba invites Mr Basil to knock on the widow's door. "I don't want no trouble," says the Englishman. "Life is trouble, only death is not," replies the Greek. The belief that there is an eternal life, a life after death, is an entirely Christian belief and is only Basil's; Zorba is Greek, for him life is a cycle that closes without any tomorrow and without any consequence. The culture in which English is lived is too strong for the attraction for a beautiful woman to distract him. It's Christmas and the beautiful widow sends back to Mr. Basil the borrowed umbrella together with the Christmas cookies. Zorba discovers them and invokes the essential irrationality in love. Another beautiful scene in which the clash between sacred codes becomes politics, freedom, humanity. The diversity between the two cultures manifests itself first of all in the face of love which requires a dose of irrationality, but the paths are once again divided, the two religions have incompatible points of contact with life.
The widow is extremely beautiful and the village too far from the world. Mr. Basil hesitates and goes to visit the woman, but the temptation is represented by a hint of dance that traces the whole Dionysian world in power that emerges from within the heart of the English in contact with the Greek. Love wins. The scene, shot without dialogue and only through gestures, tears and shyness of both, is masterful. Even the archaic world rises together with Love, whose power is such only when it has to do with the death of what each lover was before that gesture.
One idea upsets Zorba when he discovers a forest belonging to an Orthodox monastery: to market the timber by transporting it ashore via a cable car. A crazy idea that requires, first of all, that the monks agree. This is how an archaic deity tries his hand at a Christian miracle, with a trick he lets people believe that the water from the jug of the priests of the Orthodox monastery has been transformed into wine. God wants it, he seems to tell the community of religious in prey to the joy and sociality that the wine introduces as a glue between like two communities: that of the monastery and that of the village. But Mr. Basil's moralizing ethics clashes once again with that of the Greek who has a very different idea of nature from those who believe it created by God. Before starting his strategy, the Greek god confesses his madness and, as is his custom on the summits of Citerone, he dances, dragging his companions and confessing the dance to be life. This is why we have included the film in the path of knowledge towards Dionysus. We're not talking about a remote past, but about the main elements of our culture and culture is to know how to fit today's things into a context that has always included yesterday. On Greek soil, in a Greek village, among Greek stories only Zorba is the Greek, a figure clinging to the same conception of nature and life that produced Dionysus in the minds of men.
The ending of the film is an explicit declaration of Dionysian faith, in which irrationality is the fuel of freedom. Perhaps for this reason Nikos Kazantzakis, one of the most important European writers, today buried in his Crete, in the rock that recalls Venice, wanted to write on his tomb:
I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free.
Walter Frederich Otto, Dioniso: Mito e culto, Mondadori
Eric R. Dodds, I Greci e L’irrazionale BUR
Karl Kerenyi Dioniso Adelphi
Bruno Snell, La cultura Greca e le origini del pensiero europeo, Piccola Biblioteca Einaudi
Walter Frederich Otto, Gli dei della Grecia
Giorgio Ieranò, Arcipelago, isole e miti del mar Egeo Piccola Biblioteca Einaudi
Laura Pepe, Gli eroi bevono vino, Laterza
Director Aldo Di Russo
Scientific director Mario Cesarano
bibliographical research and text revision Valeria Ricca
Director of Photography Antonio Grambone
Web Graphyc Mauro Scaramella