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.
The old poet and the boy are connected by fear. The former over what lies ahead, and if his life has had impact, and the latter over what lies ahead in his — especially a perilous return trip to Albania where, as he explains to Alexander, the path over the mountains is lined with land mines, as well as men who kidnap street boys to sell them for black market adopters (as well as possibly the sex trade).
One of the best scenes in the film occurs when the two of them take a bus trip and encounter all sorts of people, from a tired political protester to an arguing couple to a classical music trio. They also look out the window as a trio of people on bicycles pedal by them, oddly dressed in bright yellow raincoats. The symbolism can mean any of several things, but the moment jumps out at the viewer.
Much of the film is superbly choreographed, such as an earlier scene, where Alexander pawns off his pooch on his housekeeper, Urania (Helene Gerasimidou), for the last three years. She is manifestly smitten with him, but is in the middle of a wedding party and dance between her son and his bride. The scene plays on until Alexander interrupts. He convinces her, leaves the dog, and then the dance and music, which had stopped, resumes as if nothing had halted it.
But, the boy also has a key scene — one which is unexplained, but deeply poetic and moving. We see him in the ruins of a hospital, mourning another young boy, Selim, via a candlelight vigil, with dozens of other youths. What makes this scene work is that we see a possibly dying boy, not long before, and he looks like one of the street children that Alexander’s boy was in cahoots with. The repetition of Selim’s name, the candlelight, and the odd arrangement of the other children in the frame of the film make for a moment that stirs, even if the reason is not apparent, for we have no reason to care for this character, know nothing of his fate, and, in fact, the whole scene may be a dream of the boy, ruminating on his cohort, and wishing that he, too, can be freed from life via death. That all of this comes from a child adds to the pathos and depth.
The cinematography of Giorgos Arvanitis and Andreas Sinanos is brilliant, even if most of the film is shot in overcast or foggy days. Only the past seems bright and sunny. The takes routinely go two or three minutes in length, and conversations are never broken up into the Hollywoodish close-ups that tell the viewer what is apparent- who is speaking.
Yet, the camera is often in motion about the action, moving around the characters, changing angles, perspectives, and sometimes moving past them. Sometimes this is to connect them to the past, while other times it is to show that there is existence beyond their ultimately small problems.
A good example of this comes in a night scene where Alexander is driving his car up to a stoplight that is red. There, he just stops his car, and other cars have to go around him when the light turns green. The camera slowly zooms in to the front windshield where we see the poet dealing with his angsts. Then, the camera perspective changes, and we are looking behind the car, up at the light, now red again. Only it is dawn, and Alexander has spent hours, perhaps, at this light, now on a deserted street. Then, without warning, he runs the red light. The need for reflection, at any cost, could hardly have been better limned.
Of course, the length of most of the takes, with the shortest being longer than most Hollywood shots, means most speed-addicted American viewers will be bored by the film. Yet, can there be a better recommendation for such a work? And, despite the long takes, the 126 minute long film feels far shorter, and this is because each scene leaves an immense intellectual and emotional impact. It was written by Angelopoulos, longtime Fellini screenwriter Tonino Guerra ,and Petros Markaris. The scoring by Eleni Karaindrou is pitch perfect, as it never overwhelms nor guides the viewer beyond what the scenes’ immanent power holds.
The acting by Ganz is wonderful, and a textbook display of full body acting. In the modern scenes he moves slowly and with a slump in his bearing, while when he enters the past, he has alacrity and grace. It is stated, in online descriptions of the film, that Ganz’s lines were dubbed into Greek, but this presents little problem as there is not much dialogue, Alexander’s facial hair partially covers his lips, and many of the speaking scenes are from a distance or the back. Again, the conveyance of his emotional and psychological states is predominantly by bodily acting.
The same is not true for the boy, and Achilleas Skevis gives yet another terrific acting performance for a European child actor. His face has hints of the American Culkin acting clan, yet he is far more subtle and expressive, and when he jokes to Alexander that ‘buying words’ on the docks may be expensive, there is an impishness to his glinting eyes that few American brat actors could capture.
The DVD, by New Yorker Video, is in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and despite constant complaints from some critics that the transfer is bad, I think many are simply not taking into account that the bulk of the film is meant to be hazy. Yes, even the bright beach scenes are a bit muted, but without having seen other prints, it can easily be viewed as simply an extension of the director’s vision, or the lead character’s disposition being displayed visually. There are no noticeable flaws otherwise.
The film is subtitled in English, but since Ganz’s voice was dubbed from German, why couldn’t the whole of this sparsely dialogued film have been dubbed into English? Unlike New Yorker’s DVD of Landscape In The Mist, this DVD does have a few features- such as a twenty-plus minute introduction to the film by Andrew Horton, a Professor of Film Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and author of The Films Of Theo Angelopoulos. Then there’s a ten minute long featurette called The Journey Through Time Of Theo Angelopoulos, which explains how the film’s long bravura single shot ending was filmed and what it symbolizes, as claimed by Angelopoulos. Then there are poetry selections by the real Dionysios Solomos (from the unfinished poem in the film), C.P. Cavafy, and George Seferis, as well as an eight page booklet featuring an interview with Angelopulos.
Eternity And A Day is another great film by a master of the art who has been sorely neglected in the United States. It asks of its two lead characters, Why am I always a stranger in exile?, and gives no clear answer, save to estrange the two of them from each other and themselves.
The boy departs Alexander in the middle of the night, stowing aboard a huge, brightly lit ship whose destination is unknown. That the man allows this to happen speaks volumes on his own state of mind and his implicit understanding that the boy needs him far less than he feels he needs the boy. He is something the child needs to outgrow. The slow dissolve of the ship’s outlines into the black lets the image’s beauty ring in the viewer’s mind, and it is this beauty that hints of a happier future for the boy, wherever he ends up.
Alexander’s final estrangement is not as cheery, and comes as he enters his old home- the one his daughter has sold for demolition. He looks about, exits out the back door, and into the sunny past where Anna and other friends are singing. They stop, ask him to join them, then they all dance, and soon, there is only the poet and his wife in motion. Then, she slowly pulls away, and he claims his hearing is gone. He also cannot see her, it seems. He calls out and asks how long tomorrow will be, after he has told her he refuses to go into the hospital, as planned. She tells him tomorrow will last eternity and a day.
The film ends with Alexander, back to us, mumbling in untranslated Greek (do we really need to know what he is saying at this point, anyway?) watching the waves on the ocean do what they do, for a long time. It is in moments like this that Angelopoulos reveals that, while he is the equal of the best filmmakers in the art’s history, such as Fellini or Bergman, he has more seriousness than the former, and a more profound empathy than the latter. Where that ultimately places him on the scale of the cinematic pantheon is to be argued over, but not the fact that he belongs. He and this film are that great.