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The Greeks aren't wedded to this image

Film's brash emigrant stereotype seems increasingly foreign back in the homeland.

January 11, 2003|Miron Varouhakis | Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece — It's certainly big and fat -- squashing big-budget competition at the box office and 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 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 BC emperor-conqueror Alexander the Great.

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, a fraction compared with that spent on major studio films, "Greek Wedding" has earned $228 million in North American theaters.

The movie has been frequently 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 to 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 Dimitriou, president of the Washington-based American Hellenic Educational Progressive Assn.

In the movie, 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.

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.

"This movie seems to have placed Greek Americans more strongly than before in this overall American tapestry," said Corradi.

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