Monday, January 13, 2003

Homeland, immigrants differ on 'Greek Wedding's realism

By Miron Varouhakis
The Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece - It's certainly big and fat: squashing big-budget competition at the box office and now gaining extra buzz as a possible Oscar nominee. But is it really "Greek"?

To most fans of the smash movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding such a question would seem absurd. The film by comic-screenwriter Nia Vardalos practically drips ouzo.

Yet back in Ms. Vardalos' ancestral land, the movie carries another distinct - but increasingly unfamiliar - flavor: the world according to Greek-Americans.

To many Greeks, the film has exposed the widening gulf between the sentimental musings of Greek-Americans and the realities of modern Greece. Greek immigrant trademarks such as hyper-patriotism, large, loud families and preservation of village traditions - all affectionately needled in the film - make many Greeks cringe as their nation sheds old ways in favor of a Western image.

Greeks now have one of the lowest birthrates in the European Union. Scotch is rapidly replacing ouzo and wine as the drink of choice. The Greek government has turned its back on a Greek-American concept of ethnic pride: a proposal to carve a giant mountaintop visage of the 3rd century B.C. emperor-conquerer Alexander the Great.

Alien stereotype

The brash Greek immigrant stereotype seems increasingly alien back in the homeland.

"At times, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is not a flattering film," wrote the Greek daily Kathimerini. "Those who have seen the movie might not be all that happy with its surprising success abroad."

"Greek-Americans are a different race of people, they are a completely different thing. The movie's close where Greek-Americans are concerned, but they have nothing to do with Greeks," said Alexandra Tsilikas, a 37-year-old English teacher who lived in the United States as a teenager.

The film has been playing in Athens since the summer. Greek media - which normally trumpet any achievement by Greeks abroad - slowly came around and spotlighted the film's astonishing run. Shot for just $5 million, Greek Wedding has earned $228 million at U.S. theaters so far.

Oscar rumors

The movie has been mentioned in the speculation surrounding Academy Award nominations, which will be announced Feb. 11.

The Greek National Tourism Organization is ignoring local criticism of the movie to try to boost Greece's declining popularity as a travel destination.

Tourism officials announced plans for a promotion in Modern Bride magazine and offer 7.2 million DVDs of the film.

James F. Dimitriou, head of the largest Greek-American association, doesn't mind the cool reception from the old country.

For him, the film is a love letter to the immigrant spirit.

"I do feel that this film captures much of our essence and, for those secure enough to embrace it, allow us all to laugh and cry a bit," said Mr. Dimitriou, president of the Washington-based American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association.

In the movie, Ms. Vardalos plays Toula, a waitress in her father's Chicago restaurant, who falls in love with a laid-back - and all-American - teacher portrayed by John Corbett. Toula's family struggles to accept the romance and marriage.

"Nia Vardalos has captured so much of our essence, beauty, fear and pride," said Mr. Dimitriou.

Juan E. Corradi, a sociology professor at New York University, sees the film as part of a tradition of exploring how families try to maintain their religious and cultural traditions in mainstream America.

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