1960 / Best Director

Film #585: Never on Sunday (1960)

We end our globe-trotting cinematic odyssey now with a film that I would compare to Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris in terms of its amount of foreign language. Just like Bertolucci’s film, Jules Dassin’s Never on Sunday is set in a foreign country; in this case Greece, but stars an American in the lead male role whilst also featuring many actors speaking the native language of their homeland. However that’s where the comparisons end as Never on Sunday is another lightweight comedy albeit one that focuses on a prostitute and has central premise that has more than a hint of Pygmalion about it.

Never on Sunday is set in the Greek port of Piraeus and primarily focuses on Maria Mecouri’s Ilya, a free-spirited prostitute who plays by her own rules. We learn early on that Ilya isn’t motivated by money and unlike the other prostitutes in the area doesn’t rent a room from the local heavy who is simply known as ‘no face’. The locals of Piraeus are presented as simple-minded folk whose main focus is drinking, dancing and having sex without really thinking about the consequences. Attempting to shake things up is American intellectual Homer, played by Dassin himself, who feels that Ilya represents all that is wrong with Greece. Homer attempts to apply logic to the way the locals carry out their daily lives and is particularly baffled by Ilya’s insistence that she enjoys her job. Ilya is someone who subscribes to the ignorance is bliss mantle and often recreates the stories behind the Greek tragedies she likes to watch in order to make herself feel better. Homer’s futile attempts to restore some logic into Ilya’s life are met with resistance and in the end, he makes a deal with ‘No Face’ in order to finance a fortnight’s worth of lessons which will hopefully turn her life around. Although Ilya is initially happy with the set-up, inevitably the source of Homer’s funds is revealed leading to a rising up of the women of Piraeus and a lesson being taught to the American who thought he could make a difference.

When I initially read about Never on Sunday I thought that it was an all-European affair especially seeing as the writer/director had the continental-sounding name of Jules Dassin. It’s only when I researched the man’s work that I discovered that he was an American-born director who was blacklisted in the 1950s and went over to Europe to continue working. It was in Greece that Dassin found a second home and eventually a second wife in the form of Never on Sunday’s leading lady Maria Mercouri. It’s clear that Never on Sunday is Dassin’s love letter to Greece and in particular the small port communities such as Piraeus. Through Dassin’s direction you certainly are transported to the seedy apartments and lively bars of the area as I felt I was almost sitting at one of the seats watching the dancing first hand. The direction is so intimate that at times I thought I could smell the Ouzo and felt like a fly in the wall during one of Ilya’s Sunday parties that she likes to hold for all her closest friends. Although I enjoyed Dassin’s direction I felt his script was a little flimsy and the exchanges between and Homer and Ilya didn’t feel fully drawn. The plot itself was similarly slight with the main focus of Never on Sunday being the characters rather than the Pygmalion-light story of Homer trying to better Ilya. I was equally disappointed by Dassin’s performance as Homer as he was outclassed by the local actors and as a result made his character feel a little unsympathetic.

Thankfully Never on Sunday was saved by Mercouri who gave a tour da force turn as the likeable and strong-willed Ilya. Ilya is a memorable cinematic character and she is given a fully-rounded portrayal by Mercouri who I believe wanted to make her other half’s film a success. I found her turn utterly captivating and think it’s a shame she didn’t win that year’s Best Actress Oscar which she was at least nominated for. In fact Never on Sunday’s only Oscar win came in the Best Original Song category for the titular tune that is sung by Ilya during one of the film’s most memorable scenes. Just like Divorce Italian Style, Never on Sunday was a light, lively film that had its moments but was ultimately rather underwhelming. I would say though that Dassin’s film had more to offer thanks to the film placing you right in the middle of the action and primarily due to the fantastic central turn given by the enigmatic Maria Mercouri.

That’s it now for these foreign language films next time I return to the English-speaking world as I go back to the 1970s to look at an American movie that was nominated alongside Day for Night in the Best Director category.

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