Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Jules Dassin
Starring: Melina Mercouri, Jules Dassin and Giorgos Foundas
Once a winner at Cannes, the Oscars and countless Greek award ceremonies and festivals, the 1960 Greek film Never on Sunday cleverly bypassed censorship and introduced a bridge between America and the mysterious culture of the Greek people.
Never on Sunday focuses on Ilya, a, dare I say it… whore. Though this prostitute is far different from the American portrayal of sex-for-money broken, diseased women. Ilya is beautiful, radiant, loved and respected by all the men, sailors and other prostitutes in her seaside town. She doesn’t name prices; she picks them along with her men. Shouldn’t she get to pick her clientele? She is the embodiment of the highlights of Greek culture. Her world is filled with adventure, sexual liberation, dance, music, drinking and the company of generous, hard working Greek men who adore her.
All but one man, anyway. Along comes Homer (starring writer/director Dassin himself), an American tourist and amateur philosopher who specializes in classical Greece and the works of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. His voyage to Greece is a journey to find what has made people unhappy, and what has brought the once glorious ancient empire of Greece to the miserable, immoral Greece that he sees now. Taking great interest in Ilya, he sees her as what he has been looking for all along. She is the answer to his questions and is the symbol of ancient Greece and its fall. She is both beauty and corrupt.
While Homer makes it his mission to bring education to her, pin the immorality out of her, change her delusions and focus on reality instead of changing the ends of Greek tragedies to make herself feel better about herself. It is the test of his Western ways against her Greek ways, and in the end, the result is less than clear.
Never on Sunday is wonderfully crafted. With the ancient Greek works of Medea, Pygmalion and others tied into the story, the film not only strengthens its contextual meaning, but bypasses strict censorship regulations placed by the Greek government seeking to align it align itself with popular culture, a move common in Greek cinema in the 20th century. The story of Medea provides plot connections, character analogies and further resonance.
Though in the end, the message may be a bit muddled, it can be excused for the film’s attempt to appeal to a mass audience as most had to at the time. And time is important. Ilya’s portrayal by Melina Mercouri is certainly remarkable and ballsy, earning her an Oscar nomination at the time. Other technical elements of the film are certainly well done.
The character of Ilya brings out a lot of important topics. Though she is a prostitute, characters are never shown having sex, naked or really even seen in bed or talking about different acts. It’s cleaner than most non-prostitute movies. Forget the fact that it is 1960, it is important because it doesn’t let sex get in the way of what is more important here, freedom, acceptance, culture, ability to preserve ones way as long as it makes them happy— all things Greeks hold very dear them despite their flaws.