Never On Sunday (1960) – The Story

To be a Mona Lisa movie, it has to be simple, beautiful (if actors and the background too are, that would be obviously added bonus) and profound.

Never On Sunday (originally Pote tin Kyriaki) fits the category like a glove. It is a simple story, widely claimed to be comedy (IMDb says Drama, Comedy, Romance; Wiki says RomCom). I (as usual) would disagree atleast with two aspects, the Romance and the Comedy. I do agree that it has its funny moment, but probably to bring more of a warm smile than laugh. That too if I am hovering around the skin. The moment you go deeper probably it would be almost a scary movie. As far as I am concerned, I could go few levels deeper, excluding the skin, or I would say on different interpretations. In fact while watching it was two, and then suddenly I found that there would be a third too. And as per Einstein, if there are more than one, it stops at infinity, no where in between. Now it would be for one to find the fourth, fifth,…

It is a Greek movie. Though the DVD said it has English Audio, but that probably extended only to a few sentences here and there. Predominantly it was (probably) in Greek (or as far as I am concerned, Latin or Russian or anything that I can’t comprehend). Thankfully it has English Subtitle, and even more thankfully, those are well made. I don’t know whether it was verbatim or conceptually translated, but as far as I could see, it covered the theme relatively well, at least it didn’t create any problem in comprehension.

The whole movie centred around a prostitute, Illya (Melina Mercouri), who lived in the Greek port of Piraeus. She might be a prostitute, but with a difference (and that difference could even question what prostitution really is). She jumps into the sea, quite provocatively dressed (or undressed), not only frolics with the sailors in water, but even taunts the sailors who dare not to enter the party. She sleeps with the sailors and is definitely not monogamous (in fact almost opposite of it) and charges money too for it. But that is the only similarity.

The invitation to join the party (in water) was more of a good natured game and fun, it really is nothing like solicitation and even the sailors took it that way. Funnily it reminded me of two things, one was of course children frolicking in water. At that age it would be just friends, none other thing, including the genders in mind. And more interestingly while soliciting it was not she, but it was the men who were asking for favour. It also reminded me of the ancient Indian Swayamvara System, where the beautiful princess will choose her husband among the hopeful Princes sitting in a queue in the hall, each trying to impress her with his antecedents and valour (there would be a spokesman standing beside him, who would readout all good things, and black out bad things). Here too, all the sailors were crowding around her, asking for her favour. 

In the evening, the all would assemble in the cafe on the port, where she would choose her mate for the evening, and go with the sailor that she fancied. It was mentioned by the people, and then shown too, that she had turned down the highest bidder and given her favours to the H2 bidder (there were only two). She was by nature a warm and joyous person and universally loved. This universal love, though not spelt out, seemed to be, by the feeling of the people around, not carnal. I agree that it too definitely was a part of their life together, but probably secondary.

I don’t think I had seen any ‘wives’ or ‘girlfriends’ around, Illya was the only person of feminine gender in her gang. But the type of the person she was, I suspect that she wouldn’t have been shunned even by them, even if their boyfriends/husbands made a pass on her. She was the mistress of the port city (in both meanings, the second being the feminine gender of Master) and the men not only adored her, but respected her.

In the port city, there was a bordello (naturally). There was however only one, consolidating the whole business under a single umbrella. This umbrella belonged to the Don, “No Face” (Alexis Solomos). But his life wasn’t all rosy. Illya was free-lancer and refused to either rent a room at his bordello, or cooperate with him (only business, he wasn’t interested in the pleasure aspect). He, being in monopoly (almost) used to have his way, fixing the rentals and terms and conditions of his bordello tenants, but even in that Illya was the thorn in a particular part of his pant, since all his girls looked up to Illya and seek her advice. Of course the question would arise why the No face, with the mafia at his disposal didn’t take care of her, or liquidate her? That was asked by Homer, when she insulted and turned away Noface’s right hand man, who came with a birthday present from Noface for her. 

It was in one of her Sunday party (Sunday was open home at her place). It would be a day of party and bonhomie – probably that’s why Never On Sunday. This particular Sunday was her birthday too.

About the threat of No-face one of the men casually mentioned that  “If he tries to do anything, he and his all houses would be dismantled, brick by brick”. Despite her trade, she probably was the most admired person in the area. 

She was enamoured with Greek Tragedies and would travel every Sunday to the theatre. I think it was in Athens, Odeon, at least that I guess, by matching the Odeon photographs with the movie scene. It is an ancient amphitheater. I wonder do they still regularly play drama in that? Here we only have special shows at the archaeological sites.

Her favourite for the moment was the tragedy Medea (Incidentally at a later stage, Melina has reprised the role of Medea in a theatre performance). But, as told by one of her friends, she had her own way of interpreting the dramas. She won’t take the interpretations from experts, friends or even other audience. Every time she watched it (She had by then watched Medea 15 times) she would rewrite the script in her head, in her way. In that re-writing, as Homer observed, her script would go completely different from the original script as the director/ author or even other audience (except her) interpreted.

In her version, she explained the story to Homer, when coaxed by the people, it wasn’t tragedy at all, rather “They went to sea-shore and lived happily ever after

In Greek Mythology, Medea was a princess and grand-daughter (through father) of Sun God Helios and Perseis (daughter of Oceanus, God of Oceans). Looking at the genealogy, Medea’s mother, Idyia seems to be step-aunt (I.e. Perseis’s step sister) of her father Aeëtes? Any way that is immaterial among immortals.

Medea fell in love with the Prince Jason and was instrumental in his getting the golden fleece. Only if Jason did, he would get back his throne. She had to act against her father (Aeëtes, who was the custodian of the fleece). In the quest, she in fact went as far as to kill and dismember her own brother to help Jason flee. It was to stop Aeëtes from chasing Jason, which he had to, to collect his son’s dismembered body.  Anyway, as per promise Jason married Medea, but the happiness didn’t last long. After a few children, Jason started looking askance and planned abandon her and marry another princess (Glauce, of Corinth).

“He was a bad man, and tried to make love to a blonde princess, Medea cried and said I am a Princess too, but he won’t listen. She was a great and loving woman, she even sent gifts to the blonde” 

Medea was too smart for them and got the princess as well as her father killed. She infact did sent gifts to Glauce, beautiful golden poisoned dress. After getting rid of Glauce, she took revenge on Jason, by killing his (who were her own too) children. Killing of the children, in some variant it was by error. Then she left Jason, went back to Athens in the golden chariot sent to her by her grandfather (Helios). 

But that is only as far as the myths, and the classics, go. Not in Illya’s version. Medea obviously didn’t kill her sons, why should she? She was a woman no? And Jason was a man. So she wanted to teach him a lesson (that is even in original version), and scare him into senses, so she lied to him. Once he came to senses, she along with him and the children went to seashore and lived there happily (that is any way correct, Athens is in seashore, though so is Corinth).

She wasn’t completely uneducated. Of course she was quite proficient in many languages , that ‘she had learnt in bed’, but otherwise too, she had her knowledge and views.  It wasn’t limited to only dramas, like Medea or Oedipus, that she could give her opinions. She was aware of Aristotle, and had a very low opinion of him. From her angle may be rightly so, considering Aristotle’s opinion of women. But that also meant that she was aware of his opinions, which definitely she couldn’t have learnt from sailors or even the common townsfolk. 

To go back to the story, Illya lived happily in the seashore, showering bliss all around Piraeus. She had one favourite, Tonio (Giorgos Foundas), half Italian and half Greek (from Corfu). But despite his entreaties, she won’t go monogamous or leave Piraeus and go around the world with him, even  to settle down at his place in Italy.

In this blissful port, Homer Thrace (Jules Dassin – incidentally the director of the movie and also at a later date Melina Mercouri’s off screen husband) made his entry. I am not sure what is he. He introduced himself as amateur philosopher, at a point someone mentions him as Author and at another place “American Boy Scout”. By his activities, it seems to be the first and third. He is there in his quest for the reason behind the decadence of human civilisation. Naturally he wanted to study it at the place where the ancient civilisation was at its peak.

This is historically inaccurate. The peak civilisations could have been Egypt (more than a millennium senior, Sphinx or Pyramids are of 3rd millennium BC) or Inca (Peru). Chinese and Indus valley Civilisation too belongs to around this time. Greek Civilisation was junior by around 1500 years and entered its infancy when due to still unknown reasons, at a far away place, Indus valley ended. Anyway, I will give the benefit of doubts to the ignorance and Caucasian bias here.

Our Homer has found his ideal decadence in Illya. Beautiful, stately charming and fallen. He stalks her (to study), his aim is to reform her in a normal life. That would be used for him to form his theory on how the civilisation itself could be reformed and brought back in tracks.

He follows her to the Greek theatre and finding her actions almost opposite of the situation being played (she would be happy while all around her sniffling) he takes it into himself to educate her about the theme and the story.

The result was almost catastrophic to all (except Homer). Illya became sad and said she didn’t want to watch any Greek Tragedies ever. Homer of course wasn’t too worried of that, he was smug at his success in educating her, but there was a problem, she refused to have anything to do with him thenceforth either. Luckily for Homer, though the people resented, but probably in absence of a hostility from Illya, they didn’t dare to act.

A help for Homer was in hand in form of Mr No Face (Alexis Solomos). He offered help in terms of finance and convinced him into a win-win partnership. Homer only had to do his cherished work, to educate Illya and bring her back to a normal life out of depravity. All the expenditure for it would be borne by Mr NoFace. In fact, he would even pay for her time at her rates. Naturally the transaction has to be done by Homer, NoFace would remain in the background, incognito. Noface of course had his interest in this project. If Homer could reform Illya, and relocated her elsewhere, may be take her with him, she won’t interfere in Noface’s business, and only then he really would be the King of Piraeus. But that, he told Homer, as far as Homer was concerned, was really independent of Homer’s objective of reforming Illya. It would be an added incentive for NoFace, but for that Homer doesn’t have to deviate from his honourable straight path or even feel compromised.

There was a small hitch still. Illya had to agree, since she would only stay with whom she fancies, not necessarily with one who bids highest. Had it been, Noface would have bought her off without any help from Homer. Fortunately for them, she agreed to be his guinea-pig for two weeks. The duration Homer got, by entreating her, promising that if even after two weeks she still felt that this life was better, so be it.

With the path cleared of all obstructions, Homer now moved full throttle ahead. The whole apartment layout was changed, it was now full of classics and literature , and even the paintings on the walls were replaced with one of ‘Good Taste’. Though not happily, but she did fulfil her part of the contract and sincerely settled into this new lifestyle. Obviously in this, the old friends of amours have no place. The Sunday parties stopped and even the non-amorous friends who would in earlier days share catches (especially fish) with her, now would have to accept money for it. She was slowly and completely transformed the way Homer and Noface wanted her to.

The joy and life blinked out of the complete area. No-face won the war and became the owner of the port-city, dictating terms to all, especially his ‘girls’. The rent of the rooms in bordello shot up from around 50 Drachma to 180 Drachma. Among all this, Illya remained isolated, in her cocoon. The board at her room which earlier said “Temporarily Shut” now was “Out Of Business”, even to Tonio, who went back from the door. She did have her nostalgic moments, but she bravely bore on.

Did she fall in love with Homer? May be she softened a bit. Did Homer? Definitely no. He had said in the beginning when the Captain (Mitsos Ligizos) warned him of Pygmalion, that it won’t happen with him, and in this case, Homer Thrace was stronger than Henry Higgins. For him, her conversion was the trophy, she wasn’t even a person, even when she was transformed.

The story to my dismay was leading towards a tragedy. In fact, even if it would have become Pygmalion ending (Homer falling in love), in this situation it would have been so. But luckily Homer’s dealings with No-face was exposed. Disillusioned and angry Illya, even more so when some of the girls told her what NoFace was doing, became Lysistrata and that naturally created a mayhem. A large ship had just landed, and the sailors that came for a few days relaxation and fun can’t be kept from it, and a riot ensued when denied. No-Face had to capitulate, his Athenian army surrendering to Lysistrata (Illya) and her women, agreeing to all the terms and conditions laid by her.

In the end, Illya, back to her joyful self, returned to cafe. She still had to do some corrections to the latest mayhems created by Homer, but it all ended in the way it started, same decadent but blissful state and then along with all her men, blissfully happy, she marched to Sea shore. Homer took the ship back home, defeated, though I am not sure educated, partially may be.

Though Homer conceded defeat and left Illya to Tonio and fate, Dassin didn’t, at least for long. He would come back after few years and marry Melina Mercouri, and then both would stay rest of their life, I assume happily, since it was 28 years, till her death in 1994, in the same seashore, Piraeus or at least in the neighbourhood, at Athens.