My Big Fat Greek Baptism

"Ian is baptised," from My Big Fat Greek Wedding

"Ian is baptised," from My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Religious conversions in film don’t normally come where you least expect them — they’re usually the whole story if they’re the story at all. But in the current independent film hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding, converting is part and parcel with loving the right woman.

Ian Miller, the love interest in Wedding, is every mother’s dream for her daughter. He has a good solid job as an English instructor. He wears khakis and sweaters. And rather than falling madly in love and then waffling, as most of the male lovers in cinema do, Ian commits from the get-go and never looks back. His hair runs a bit long, sure, but it’s more outdated than rebellious. All he wants is the love of a good woman, a house in the ‘burbs, and a few weeks of vacation each year.

All of this is not enough, however, for the parents of Toula Portokalos, the central character in this romantic comedy. Toula is Greek, and as we learn in the opening monologue, all her life she has been told that her only purpose in this world is to marry a good Greek man so she can cook Greek food and have Greek babies and mother her way into romantic oblivion. Any man who is not a Greek man is not really a man. Toula hates this way of thinking but she’s stuck with it, and she’s surrounded by a legion of cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents whose very purpose seems to limit Toula’s dating options. But all the single Greeks are undesirable to Toula, and as she has edged toward her thirties she suspects that she has become quite undesirable herself.

Because of her growing distaste for Greek men, Toula has two options: embrace the single life (which is not really an option either for a good Greek woman nor a good romantic comedy) or find some plain white clay and fashion a man in her own image. Enter: Ian Miller.

Compared with the vast repertoire of customs and rituals of Greek culture (all played to sweet-natured comic effect in this movie), Ian is the epitome of bland. His father is some undefined kind of doctor. His mother bakes bunt cakes. The Millers’ house is decorated to look like the inside of a Starbucks, which means we’ve seen it million times before. Call it middle-class-less-ness: the great cultural void of vanilla America. The Millers have nothing to say to each other, their wardrobe seems entirely beige, and they don’t even recognize other cultures when they see them (Ian’s dad can’t remember the ethnicity of his former assistant: Taiwanese? No…Guatemalan?).

Ian is a boy in search of a culture. To him, Toula’s life represents color and charm and intrigue. You have traditions? Wow! You know two languages? Cool! He falls completely in love with Toula, and takes all the oddities of her family and culture as a way to fill the cultural void in his life. Tellingly, they meet in the travel agency where Toula works, and Ian becomes a tourist of Toula’s world.

Once Ian and Toula fall in love, we expect them to stumble several times over Ian’s un-Greekness, but they never quite do. There are hesitations, and this is the central tension in the movie, but the full effect is less tense than we might have figured. Toula’s father is deeply upset that his daughter isn’t marrying a Greek, but a few arguments aside, the movie mostly proceeds along the lines of Toula and Ian’s love. He’s a vegetarian? Well, he can avoid the lamb. He doesn’t dance? Well, he can stand awkwardly off to the side. He doesn’t speak any Greek? Well, we can have fun mistranslating for him. He isn’t Orthodox? Well, let’s get him baptized!

Toula’s parents momentarily put their foot down on the issue of Ian’s un-Orthodoxy. The happy couple must be married in a Greek Orthodox church, of course, but they cannot very well do so unless Ian is baptized. What to do? Ian is willing to convert right away, and somehow they find an Orthodox priest who will give Ian an insta-baptism. Problem solved.

In Wedding, religion means everything and nothing at the same time: Greek Orthodoxy is as much a part of being Greek as gyros, baklava, and marble statues. It’s another piece of this idiosyncratic culture, another piece of codified language that Ian must learn to speak. But he only has to become Greek in form, not in spirit. He has to embrace the tackiness and the music and the machismo right along with the Crucified Lord. His ritual of baptism is perfectly fitting — it is exactly what someone as bland and dull and head-over-heels in love as Ian would do.

When Jesus talked about bringing division to earthly relationships, he focused on intermarrying families like this one: “…they will be divided father against son and son against father and mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother in law.” This is what we would expect religion to do: either bring people together or tear them apart. But in Wedding religion is just another obstacle to romance, and one that is conquered with remarkable ease.

Fortunately for Toula, Ian is a blank sheet of paper, waiting for the stroke of her pen. But by inserting himself into her world so easily, so effortlessly, so void of conviction, he is actually rewriting her world. Ian helps Toula find her own identity that is both within and without Greek culture at the same time — she can retain the customs that are dear to her family, and push a little outside of them by virtue of her marriage to a cultural outsider. But in doing so, she runs the risk of rendering those customs banal. Ian might pray the prayers and dip himself into the baptismal waters three times, looking the part of a cultural/religious convert, but in the end he’s just a lovesick boy, murmuring frivolous words and going for a frivolous swim.

Patton Dodd is a KtB-contributing editor and the author of the memoir My Faith So Far (Jossey-Bass).