Never on Sunday


D: Jules Dassin; with Dassin, Melina Mercouri, George Foundas, Titos Vandis, Mitsos Liguisos, Alexis Solomos. When Homer Thrace (Dassin), a frumpy little scholar from Middletown, Conn., arrives by boat in the Greek port city of Piraeus to "find the truth" -- and he means the grand, philosophical Truth -- there is a voluptuous, beckoning woman swimming toward him with about 20 men in tow. "There is the purity that was Greece," Homer says, and already the native beauty and the sun have distracted him from his mission. An earnest, grown-up Boy Scout, Homer is obsessed with ancient Greek culture, its "harmony" and supposed perfection. You must admit that ancient logic, virtue, and reason aren't nearly what they used to be, and Homer is out to engineer a real comeback for those bygone ideals. But his philosophical salvationism doesn't factor in a woman who just oozes sensuality, magnetism, and radiance everywhere she goes. Illia (Mercouri) can get any man to do whatever she wants, and she's Piraeus' most popular resident -- and not just because she's a ravishingly beautiful prostitute. She's a hooker with a heart of gold; when a British sailor hires her for the night, and can't go through with it for some reason, Illia kindly puts him at ease until he's up for the cause. (Of course, one also senses that Illia is a cunning capitalist who knows the damage caused by letting customers get away unsatisfied.) Homer simply cannot fathom that someone who has been given the gift of beauty wouldn't also strive for virtue. Illia does love ancient tragedy, though: In her version, Medea was "a very sweet woman but she sometimes had a bad temper." Homer can't stand Illia's overactive imagination -- "You're a Greek, you should be logical." he tells her -- and decides to do whatever it takes to mold her into a walking model of virtue. The local crime boss, Mr. Face (Solomos), would also like Illia to be less independent, since all of Piraeus' whores except Illia are under his control. When he meets Homer, they become unlikely partners in this classic, stylish comedy. Watching Illia defy her re-education is a delightful lesson in humanity. At one point, Illia tells Homer that she knows French, English, Greek, Italian, and "a little bit of Spanish." Homer asks her where she learned all those languages. "In bed," she says.

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