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Letter from Athens: What Nia Vardalos’ Wedding Movie Showed Greece, World 

It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon of movie critics taking snide shots at Canadian actress, screenwriter and director Nia Vardalos over the sequels to the astounding success of 2002’s ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’, but count me out.

The follow-up took 16 years and was not well received, just as the charm of the eccentric characters in the first didn’t click with reviewers. The just-released third version was all but mocked. But not by me.

For all the stereotyping – what culture doesn’t have its own versions of Michael Constantine’s Gus Portakalos, the loving, caring father who’s a bit odd but undeniably loving and decent – these movies hit to the heart of family.

The original touched all the right bases, not just of a Greek immigrant family experience but for any immigrant family experience – just change the names, religions, foods and cultures.

Vardalos exudes the kind of sweetness that isn’t saccharine, with believable vulnerabilities and doubts. The movie captured the essence of the often weirdness of Greek families, right down to the secondary characters’ eccentricities.

Touching on a mixed marriage after a mixed relationship was perfect because that’s the case over the generations of Greeks who marry non-Greeks – if sometimes to the shock and horror of parents who learn to live with it.

Rotten Tomatoes, lauded the first wedding movie that was a huge success – made for $5 million and grossed $368.7 million – to the delight as well of producers Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, who know Greekness and cultural identity to the core.

Their love story is not too far from that Vardalos character Toula Portakalos and her partner Ian Miller, played wonderfully subtly by John Corbett.

“Though it sometimes feels like a television sitcom, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is good-hearted, lovable, and delightfully eccentric, with a sharp script and lead performance from Nia Vardalos,” was the critics consensus on the site.

The only thing better for a critic who loves a movie is to go savagely after a sequel or follow-ups, and while the second film fell short, Vardalos brought something to the third that the world should notice but can’t, locked in endless turmoil.

There was a heart-rending sign of our own mortality, life that as Springsteen sang, goes by in the wink of a young girl’s eye, and that was reflected in Vardalos’ eye in the scene spreading her movie father’s ashes under the oldest tree in his village.

There was Victory, the non-binary Mayor of the essentially empty village, and it wasn’t just a token or a symbol. And going to Greece was the right book-end to this trilogy, taking everyone to the homeland, just as much of the Diaspora does.

The actor who played Corbett’s straight-laced uptight dad (before the ouzo kicked in) in the first Greek wedding movie also has passed since and that was mentioned in Greek Wedding 3 to complete that circle and phase of life.

This time the family got to the village because there was supposed to be a reunion, but the father’s three friends he played with in the village had moved to islands. They would, of course, be found and returned just in time.

Constantine died the same year as Vardalos’ father, touching heartstrings and giving the movie its heart, the film sadly lambasted by critics, including The New York Times which said N’Opa.

The Associated Press said the formula was ancient – the right word, because what it espoused goes back millennia, happily so.

“I decided to channel Greece through my fingertips … I realized if I’m going through it, the audience must be too because we started together and in the same way they’re also going through family issues – people are growing up, kids are going off to college, and, of course, we’ve probably lost a parent too,” she said.

What you see in her and through her eyes is your life flashing by in a way that Sylvester Stallone described as like being on a speeding train and looking out the windows and seeing scenes you lived now gone, the end of the line looming.

Vardalos, too, hit on what defines humans with a Syrian woman in the village coming to marry a young Greek, first to the unhappiness of his father, only to have it all resolved in a gala wedding – and village reunion.

Syrians and Greeks mixed foods and dances and there seemed little or no difference between them, so someone in the Greek government should have been watching to see that Syrian refugees are humans who shouldn’t be pushed back.

The government has denied that in the face of overwhelming evidence, including videos, eyewitnesses, investigative journalist reports, and stories in major mainstream media around the world.

That’s a story for another day and an ancient story of mistrust and xenophobia instead of the Greek concept of ‘philoxenia’ – hospitality – which the villagers showed the Syrians, joining them in music and celebrating life.

After it wrapped, Vardalos – five years divorced and now 60 – said she met her now boyfriend in Athens “in the most romantic way possible,” mirroring the film she wrote.

“We met on the night of a full moon at an outdoor restaurant in Greece. It’s like I wrote a movie and then walked into it,” she said. Big Fat Greek Wedding 4? In the wink of Nia Vardalos’ eye.


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