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.
They are discussing Toula, lamenting the fact that she won’t go to Greece to find a husband. Nikki, Toula’s handsome brother, sits down and tells his father not to worry, as he plans to get married one day. That’s OK, says Gus. “You’ve got plenty of time.”
As if this weren’t enough, Aunt Voula assures Gus, within earshot of her niece, that “You’ll always have Toula in the restaurant.”
Horrified by the very thought of such a life-sentence, Toula escapes in to the back alley for some air. She sits among the bins, where she finds a leaflet called ‘Add to Your Life’. Like a prayer, she makes a wish for a different life; one in which she is braver and prettier. Returning to the restaurant, she chides herself for dreaming and realises that nothing will ever change. But at that moment, a man opens the door and walks in. She turns to look. It’s Ian Miller.
Determined to Change
Toula makes a resolution to change and break out from the smothering confines of her family. She becomes determined not to waste her life trying to conform to a script written for her by somebody else. And she summons up the courage to challenge her father: “Don’t you want me to do something with my life?” she asks him.
Regardless of his reaction, she decides to enrol on a computer class at a college; she discovers contact lenses and make-up and starts working in a travel agency owned by another of her aunts.
And then Ian Miller, who she had seen and served one day in the restaurant, comes to the shop. He is a teacher who is tall and definitely not Greek. Ian provides the spark that begins a whole process of change.
They begin dating, fall in love and are soon engaged. However, when the news reaches the rest of the Portokalos family, there is complete uproar. Ian Miller is, in their eyes, a ‘xenos’ (a foreigner). Instead of being happy for her that she has finally met her true love, they cannot believe that she is contemplating marrying a non-Greek. And on top of that, he is a vegetarian!
At various points in the film, racial differences and unacknowledged prejudices are exposed. The Portokalos family regard Ian’s parents as ‘dry toast’. Meanwhile, Ian’s parents seem not to be able to distinguish between Greeks and Guatemalans. Both parties regard the other as ‘different’ and at times, their worlds seem too far apart. We can all be fearful of what is unfamiliar and unknown, of course. We can all become set in our own traditions.
Clip Two: A Weird Family
One night, Toula and Ian are walking and talking as they cross a bridge in Chicago. Ian is telling Toula about his family. “I have only two cousins. They live in Wisconsin,” he says. “What about you?”
She seems reluctant to answer. “What do you do at Christmas?” he persists.
“My mum roasts lamb…” she replies, before explaining the madness of Christmas lunch, and how Aunt Voula chases her to make her eat the lamb’s brain, while cousins abound and uncles argue. “I’m Greek, right?” she continues. “I have 27 first cousins alone.”
The only people Greeks are meant to marry is Greeks, she sighs. So that they can breed more “Greek eaters”. She feels doomed; surely they can’t pursue a serious relationship under these circumstances. “You’re wonderful, but I just don\t see how this is going to work out.”
Thankfully, Ian remains undaunted: “Work out? What’s to work out?” he protests. “You’ve got a weird family. Who doesn’t?”
A Love that Brings Liberation
The romance between Ian and Toula culminates with a huge wedding. But as with most weddings, the day doesn’t arrive without its associated mishaps and complexities.
On the surface, My Big Fat Greek Wedding describes a comical situation in which Toula escapes from being just her Greek father’s daughter to discover another life and be transformed. But it also shows how you can come to terms with your own heritage and family in the midst of enormous pressure and expectations.
It is the story of how love not only transforms Toula, but also liberates her. It is a contrast between two men and two kinds of love.
Her father judges her by her outward appearance. He tells her that she’s starting to look old, wounding her with words and wanting her to conform to his wishes. Ian, on the other hand, sees her inner beauty, heals her with kind words, and allows himself to be conformed to her. Gus whines, Ian woos. Gus uses her, Ian pursues her. Gus pouts, Ian praises. Gus is proud, focusing on himself and using his family as a tool of emotional blackmail to hold onto her. Ian, meanwhile, praises her, focuses on her, is humble, and accepts her family as well as her. In doing so, he helps to release her.
In her relationship with her father, Toula is trapped in a soul-killing life of duty and obligation, in which she sees herself only as a frump. With Ian, however, she is released into a life of liberation and love; her heart is free and her beauty naturally shines as a result.
A Parable of All Conquering Love
The contrast between these two loves is profound. Whether we will admit it or not, we are all like Toula. We are imprisoned in a world we can’t seem to escape from. The book of Genesis, in chapter 3 (verses 22-24) describes how Adam and Eve were banished from their original home in the Garden of Eden, ‘to work from the ground which they had been taken’.
Adam and Eve, after they had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, realised they were unclothed and so hid their nakedness with fig leaves. We still hide behind fig leaves today – not literally, of course, but metaphorically. Toula hid herself behind the counters at the restaurant and the travel agency. And we hide behind things. On the inside, we might feel like the frumpy girl, and quite often find ourselves sitting out in the alley having lost all hope.
The good news is that someone loved us enough to suffer for us. As Philippians 2: 5-8 tells us, ‘your attitude should be the same that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form. And in human form he obediently humbled himself even further by dying a criminal’s death on a cross. Because of this, God raised him up to the heights of heaven and gave him a name that is above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’
At the end of the film, Toula, herself comes to accept her family for what they are: “My family is big and loud, but they’re my family. And yes, we fight and argue and whatever I do, wherever I go, they will always be there.” And when Toula comes to have her own daughter, she too sends her to Greek school and continues some of the traditions and customs instilled in her for so long as a child. She does not move away from them completely, having learned instead to value them for what they are.
The message of the film is that love conquers all, and that you can find happiness despite your family’s meddling! Gus’s speech at the wedding reception summarises much of what the characters and we learn throughout the film:
Clip Three: In the End, We’re All Fruit
It’s the big day, and both families are crammed in to the reception. Toula looks beautiful as she sits beside her brand new groom. Her proud – but slightly shaky - father has risen to make his speech. He looks nervous, and speaks slowly, in his strong Greek accent.
Gus welcomes both sets of families: the Millers and the Portokaloses. He then proceeds on to explain how ‘Miller’ actually has its roots in a Greek word (could it be any other way?). And that word means ‘apple’. Then, he explains, ‘Portokalos’ has its roots in a Greek word that means ‘orange’.
“So here tonight we have apples and oranges. We’re all different… but in the end, we’re all fruit.”
His audience smile, then laugh, at the profundity and wit of his statement.
Gus has grasped the beauty of difference; unity through diversity.
The Chance to be Re-Shaped
Ultimately, Toula’s change has a positive effect on the rest of her family; her brother Nicki decides also to pursue his passions and take up painting and art at evening classes. “Don’t let your past dictate who you are, but let it be part of who you will become,” he advises.
Towards the end of George Bernard Shaw’s life, a reporter asked him, “If you had your life to live over again and could be anybody you’ve ever known, who would you want to be?”
“I would choose,” replied Shaw, “to be the man George Bernard Shaw could have been, but never was.”
What would have been your answer? Who is it you want to be? What do you want your life to become?
J N Kelly wrote, ‘In the tribunal of relentless history, the Greek is intelligent, but also conceited; active, but also disorganised; with a sense of honour, but also full of prejudices; one moment the Greek fights for truth and the next hates the person who refuses to serve a lie. A strange creature, untameable, inquisitive, half-good, half-bad, fickle, of uncertain mood, self-centred, foolish, wise - the Greek.’
Greeks will always be Greeks. But as Shelly said, in a way, we are all Greeks. There is something about us all that is foolish and wise, half-good, half-bad. We have all been sent from the Garden, banished, imprisoned.
And we all have the opportunity to be reshaped by Jesus Christ. When we enter a relationship with Jesus, we start becoming the people God created us to be in the first place. No longer bound by all those things that trap us - by expectations, tradition, pressure, self-image, duty, and the like - we start to fulfil our human potential as people who were made in the image of a loving, caring God.
A rose only becomes beautiful and blesses others when it opens up and blooms. Its greatest tragedy is to stay in a tight-closed bud, never fulfilling its potential. Whatever your past has been, you can have a spotless future if you turn to your heavenly father. He doesn’t want to enslave you; he doesn’t want you to live in yesterday. Instead, he wants you to be freed from the unforgiveness, which so often binds us.
If you have are struggling to forgive your parents, or family or friends for that matter, you can be set free. If you’re a parent, have you stopped to ask whether you’re domineering, demanding and manipulative with your children? If so, you can find forgiveness, from them and from God.
Since Jesus, the Son of God, came to live with us and to die for us, there is no longer any need for any of us to be consumed by the disappointment of wasted years. In fact, the prophet Joel assures us that ‘God can make up for the years the locusts have eaten.’
Family matters. Your family matters. You might be an apple, and I might be an orange, but don’t forget: we’re all fruit. We’re part of a heavenly family, thanks to Jesus. Which means that our earthly families, and our relationships, can be transformed… for good.