The 1998 film by Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, Eternity And A Day (Mia Aioniotita Kai Mia Mera or Μια αιωνιότητα και μια μέρα), is not merely another film about a supposed poet wherein the art of poetry and the act of poesizing are never on display.
Yes, it’s true that, technically, neither are on screen, but it is a superior film about a supposed poet wherein the art of poetry and the act of poesizing are never on display, for the film does capture the dead cliché of ‘a soul of a poet’ as well as just about any I’ve ever seen. It does it with imagery, and Angelopoulos’s patented long takes, but it does capture it, and exceedingly well. The film was not only directed by Angelopoulos, but he wrote the screenplay. That it won that year’s Cannes Film Festival’s coveted Palm D’Or shows that, sometimes, quality still counts.
The tale subtly weaves the past, present, and future tenses of a dying man, the bearded poet Alexander (Bruno Ganz, best known for starring in Wim Wenders’ Wings Of Desire, and the later Adolf Hitler biopic Downfall, as Hitler), as he muses on life a day before he is to enter a hospital for an unspecified ‘test.’
In this manner, the film is in the fine tradition of films on dying men trying top come to grips with their lives, such as Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, and Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. Yet, where the former film achieves its aims by balancing out the life of the dying man with that of a young woman, then turns the film on its head by dealing with the legacy of the man after his death, and the latter film evokes dread by displaying the subconscious memories of its lead character, Eternity And A Day splits the difference.
It does so as Alexander, after leaving his seaside apartment in Thessaloniki, after learning he has a terminal illness and must enter a hospital the next day, muses on a neighbor across the way who mirrors his taste in music, befriends a young unnamed immigrant Albanian boy (Achilleas Skevis) who is being exploited, and slips in and out of his and others’ pasts by simply walking into them. Angelopoulos does not cut to the past. His characters’ pasts are extensions of their presents.
The six- or seven-year-old boy is a vagrant window washer, of the sort common in large American cities, and, after a trip to the past while visiting his thirtyish daughter (Iris Chatziantoniou), and musing on his likely dead wife, Anna (Isabelle Renauld), who appears as almost the same age as their daughter, Alexander saves him from a band of policemen who are chasing down similar boys. Yet, he cannot escape his own memories.
At his daughter’s apartment, he does not tell her of his diagnosis, instead hands her letters written by his wife, her mother. As she reads them, Alexander walks out into the past — there is no cut, wipe, fade, nor dissolve to memory. All is eternal and all is connected. He simply passes through a door to her balcony, the camera angle changes, and he exits the door to his former seaside home, one which he, after his reverie, learns his daughter and her lover have sold for demolition without telling him. Yet, we never find out why he and his wife split up, although there are hints that the man’s art, and fame as a writer were behind it. We never learn if she is still alive or dead, although dead is likelier.
We also never learn the truth about the little boy he befriends, either. At times the boy seems genuine, and other times he’s a scoundrel straight out of a Dickens novel. As in his earlier film, Landscape In The Mist, Angelopoulos’s child is trying to leave Greece. But, as with the children in that film, the way to Albania is not exactly an easy one, for at the snowy mountain border we see a very eerie scene of a barbed wire fence with what seem to be bodies (live or dead?) stuck to it. As the pair wait for the gate to open, they have a change of mind about crossing, when the boy admits has been lying about his life in Albania. The two of them barely escape a border sentry who chases them and make it back to Alexander’s automobile.
The boy’s perilous existence beings Alexander out of his stupor and self-pity, and seemingly re-energizes him in his love for a dead 19th century Greek poet, Dionysios Solomos (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), whose poem he longs to finish. Yet, Alexander is still wallowing in the memories of his wife, and trying to find a new master for his dog.