A friend of mine recommended the 1960 classic Never on Sunday (directed by Jules Dassin, starring Melina Mercouri) as the film that introduced foreign cinema to the larger American audience. In fact, it won several Academy Awards nominations and was a huge success. It also caused uproar in Hollywood with the fact that a foreign film, featuring a prostitute as the protagonist, would be so highly acclaimed. According to one source, it “kicked off the foreign film rage” in the US.
It is ironic though that this film would be such a high icon for foreignness. It is a subtle, but non-ambiguous commentary on the futility and the folly of the American civilizing project. With the United States emerging as not just the most powerful world leader in the West, but also the moral and cultural standard bearer after World War II, this film questions its claim as a new civilizing model. And it is funny that this is achieved through the old Pygmalion narrative, in which a cultured man (an American) tries to educate a lower class woman (in this case, a Greek prostitute) to give her new life with a new social status.
An American classical scholar, aptly named Homer, goes to Greece for some introspection and to find the roots of a modern civilization that has lost its values and its direction. There he meets Ilya, a port prostitute who doesn’t behave as one: she chooses her own clients and does not set a price; loves Ancient Greek tragedy but modifies to her own liking the well-known stories she tells her friends. Homer thinks she is the embodiment of the moral and intellectual corruption of contemporary civilization that has lost the principles of ancient wisdom. He sets to educate her, hoping knowledge will make her abandon her trade and thus will cure society’s ills.
However, Homer’s reeducation idea peculiarly coincides with the plans of the local shady real estate developer, Noface, who has been exploiting the people renting apartments in the port area. He also wants Ilya to quit her profession, because her independent presence has been encouraging them to oppose him. After cramming facts as disparate as composers’ bios and algebra, art movements and historic battles, Ilya feels betrayed when she accidentally discovers this union of goals of Noface and Homer, of intellectual superiority and capitalist greed. She starts a strike in which Noface is forced to lower the rent of his apartments for everybody.
Homer is also struck by the coincidence of his intellectual condescension with corrupt business interests; he probably recognizes that may have in fact contributed to the civilization decline he decries. Instead of blaming Ilya for distorting the “real” stories of Greek tragedies to make them sunny and optimistic, now he admits this reworking of plots and stories is instead proof of the vitality of Ilya’s culture he was pretending to represent better through his erudition. Her honor code as a prostitute is a better code of morality than the capitalist principles of his world. He accepts he shouldn’t make the tavern music player feel incompetent because he doesn’t read music scores if he can do something much better: play his bouzouki in such an engaging, magical way that counts for more than just knowing music notation.
This creative freedom is the legacy of the Ancient Greek civilization. The film practically says that forcing American values, supposedly representing the real heritage of an ancient culture, on the very nation that actually still holds it, is arrogant. So classical scholar Homer finds his own cultural enlightenment in the vitality of a Greek tavern and joins everybody there in a jolly dance.