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    Film seen as a visual valentine to Greek life

    For Tarpon Springs fans who rave about the love story My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the film is an accurate picture of Greek-American families.

    By JULIE CHURCH, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 2, 2002


    In the six weeks since it opened nationwide, the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding has grossed far less than the big summer blockbusters, but among moviegoers in Tarpon Springs it has struck a chord.

    "People all over town have been talking about it," Tarpon Springs city clerk Kathy Alesafis said. "People who haven't seen a movie in 20 years have gone to see it."

    When Alesafis saw the movie, it was packed, largely by her neighbors and friends.

    Managers of and spokesmen for the two theaters in North Pinellas and West Pasco that are showing the movie didn't respond to inquiries last week about what kind of business the movie is doing locally. Around Tarpon Springs, however, it's not hard to find people who have seen it again and again, and love it.

    "I've been three times," said former Tarpon Springs Mayor Anita Protos. "I've been taking all my family and friends back to see it."

    Protos rarely goes to the movies, saying it is too expensive. But she didn't mind spending $4.25 three times to see My Big Fat Greek Wedding at United Artists Movies at Clearwater, one of only two local theaters showing the movie. It is also playing at the Hollywood 18 theater in Port Richey.

    "Every time you see it, you see something different," she said.

    What keeps bringing them back is the Portokalos family, which is preparing for the marriage of 30-year-old Toula, played by Nia Vardalos, a comedian and actor who is of Greek descent and also wrote the screenplay.

    Along with Vardalos, the movie features several well-known actors, including Michael Constantine as Toula's father and Sex in the City star John Corbett as her fiance.

    Protos and several other Greek-Americans say Vardalos' portrayal of a huge Greek family is very true to life.

    "The movie is dead-on accurate," said 21-year-old Sofia Salivaras, who has seen the movie once and can't wait to see it again. "It was not Hollywoodized at all. They nailed a Greek family to a T."

    In the movie, Toula works as a hostess at her parents' Greek restaurant. Her parents spend the first part of the movie searching for a nice Greek boy for her to marry.

    "Hey," her father tells her in the opening scene, "you better get married because you're starting to look old."

    He even offers to fly her to Greece to find a husband. But when Toula meets and falls in love with a WASPy teacher from Chicago's North Shore area, her father is less than thrilled.

    His sentiments are not altogether different from a lot of Greek fathers, according to Salivaras.

    "My father has told me as long as he respects me and loves my family, it's okay if the man I marry isn't Greek," Salivaras said. "But he'd love it if I did."

    Salivaras sees a lot of similarities between her life and Toula's. She was born in Chicago where My Big Fat Greek Wedding takes place. She manages her family's bakery, Fournos, while her parents, Andreas and Rene, run Mykonos Restaurant on the Sponge Docks. She lives at home now and hopes to live next door to her parents when she gets married.

    In a voiceover narration, Toula says the role of a Greek woman is to marry a Greek boy, have Greek babies and feed everyone. It is a theme that recurs throughout the movie, at one point with a whole lamb, legs extended, on a spit in Toula's parents' front yard.

    Along with the movie's sentimental comedy and somewhat exaggerated characters, its themes of family and respect for one's heritage are also familiar to many Greek-Americans who have seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

    "It's about hospitality, the hospitality of the Greek people," said Andreas Salivaras, who saw the movie with his wife and a group of 10 people, all of whom later went to someone's house to discuss the story over coffee. "It expresses all my feelings about the Greek culture and my Greek heritage."

    The movie is produced by Tom Hanks, whose wife, Rita Wilson, is of Greek descent. They saw Vardalos' one-woman theater show in Los Angeles and bought the screenplay in 2000.

    Hanks has said that when he married into Wilson's family his life changed. He developed a big Greek family that he loves.

    It is common for non-Greeks marrying into Greek families to feel as if they've been adopted into the culture, said the Rev. Tryfon Theophilopoulos of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs.

    He went "incognito" to see the movie one night last week, so he wouldn't be recognized by his parishioners, many of whom have seen the movie, he said. The night he went, he estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of the audience was Greek.

    "The great thing about marrying into a Greek family is that many of these marriages transform the non-Greek girl or boy into something else, they develop a deep respect for the Greek culture and they become part of the Greek-American culture themselves."

    * * *

    -- Julie Church can be reached at (727) 445-4229 or church@sptimes.com.

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