Summary: I am Greek. And if you’ve seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you’ll have seen some of my relatives - including my mother, who is a travel agent for guilt trips. (Recently, she returned the Christmas presents that my wife and I bought for her.)
2002: IFC Films
Directed by Joel Zwick
Nia Vardalos as Toula
John Corbett as Ian
Rated PG for sensuality and language
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I am Greek. And if you’ve seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you’ll have seen some of my relatives - including my mother, who is a travel agent for guilt trips. (Recently, she returned the Christmas presents that my wife and I bought for her.)
You’ll have probably heard of lots of Greeks. There’s Homer (not Simpson, but the giant of ancient literature); the playwrights and dramatists Aesop, Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides; Pythagoras, the mathematician; Thales, the first person to measure pyramids; the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates; Herodotus, the historian; Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the great philosophers; the Parthenon (OK, it’s a building, but it’s still Greek); and Pilavachi, the youth worker.
Although My Big Fat Greek Wedding is about a Greek family, its story has universal appeal – not least because, as the famous 19th-century poet P B Shelley once said, ‘We are all Greeks. Our laws, our literature, our arts all have their roots in Greece.’
Released in April 2002, this film became a surprise hit. It was produced on a very small budget with no major stars, but still managed to out-gross many of the more expensive and heavily promoted films.
The reason for such astonishing success is because My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a modern day Cinderella story; it’s a movie that touches our hearts, and is based on a true account. Nia Vardalos, who grew up in a Greek family and describes the story as an autobiography, wrote the script. ‘I believe that the movie is about any family that loves you to the point of smothering,’ she wrote.
And she’s right. Many of us will relate directly to her experience, whether we’re Greek or not. (Personally, I was so smothered by the Greek culture that when I went to school, aged five, I couldn’t even speak English. By eight, I was working in my father’s Greek restaurant.) Every family surely has its challenges.
The movie opens at 5 o’clock on a dark, rainy Chicago morning. Toula (played by Vardalos) and her father are driving to the family restaurant he owns and she has always worked for. Toula yawns, rather unattractively, as they sit side by side in the car. Her father looks over, frowns, and says (in his thick Greek accent), “You better get married soon. You starting to look old.”
She and her family are from Greece, but live in Chicago. Toula is a frumpy, dowdy thirty-something, quietly wasting away as a waitress in her father’s restaurant Dancing Zorba’s. She wears thick-rimmed glasses and seems outwardly, at best, to be utterly unremarkable.
According to her parents Gus and Maria, Toula’s purpose in life should be “to marry a Greek boy, make Greek babies and feed everyone”. But having failed to fulfil her cultural mandate so far, they are worried that she will wind up as a lonely old maid.
Toula may be ready for change. Unfortunately, the rest of her family is not. Since birth, she has struggled with the heritage her parents will not allow her to forget; and she despises the duty of having to ‘be Greek’.
“You should be proud to be Greek,” her family tell her. “There are two kinds of people… Greeks, and those who want to be Greek.”
The Portokalos family clearly demonstrate that Greeks take immense pride in the history of their civilisation and their achievements – such as astronomy, philosophy and democracy.
In fact, they are so proud of their culture that it completely dominates their identity. Take their house, for example: it’s set in what Toula describes as “a normal, middle-class neighbourhood of tasteful, modest houses”. But they’ve added Corinthian columns at the front, the garage door is entirely painted in the Greek flag, and statues of the Greek gods litter the garden, “guarding the house”.
They stand out a mile for ‘being Greek’ and for everything associated with it, clinging desperately to their traditions and roots. They are set in their ways. And although this seems to bind them together as a family, it also blinds them. With tradition comes great expectation. Tradition can create a narrow set of attitudes and way of life. It does not leave room for individualism and creativity.
Clip One: Dreaming of a Better Life
The restaurant is open but quiet. Toula, who is getting on with setting up for the day, narrates, while her father tucks into breakfast, chatting to another man.
“I wish I had a different life. Prettier, cleverer, braver. But it’s useless to dream. Nothing ever changes,” she says.
Toula is trapped in the seemingly hopeless situation of a world that she cannot escape from. Her heart is screaming to be liberated, while at the same time she is losing all hope. As she pours milk from a huge jug, her Aunt Voula – “If nagging were an Olympic sport, she would have a gold medal” – joins the men at the breakfast table.