A Greek Bearing Gifts
Before I ask you to see Eternity and a Day, I'd better explain something about its director and co-screenwriter, Theo Angelopoulos. He is without question a filmmaker of immense talent--one of the few today who bear comparison with major figures of the past. He is also a kind of art-house Mussolini, whose self-image, like a massive, stony portrait bust, overshadows any screen on which his films are projected.
Were it not for Angelopoulos's monumental self-importance, I might simply tell you that in 1975, he became internationally famous (though not in the United States) with the release of his epic-length tale of modern Greek history, The Traveling Players; and famous he's remained (except here) until the present moment. Now Eternity and a Day, which won the Palme d'Or at the 1998 Cannes festival, is booked into a theater near you. I ought to celebrate this anomaly by reading out my usual sermon against American insularity. And yet, if you haven't already seen Angelopoulos's work at festivals or museums, you might want to know that this viewer has walked out of some of his pictures, and during others has felt the need to fling heavy objects at the screen.
Like so many of his films, Eternity and a Day demands patience--that is, forbearance, stamina and a tolerance for moments of profound silliness. While Angelopoulos is pressing you to admire him for one of his elaborately choreographed long takes, you might feel the urge to shout, "Get on with it!" While he's keying up his storytelling to the level of fable (with the legend of an expatriate nineteenth-century poet) or, worse still, to allegory (with a digressive bus ride through, I'm not kidding, The Human Condition), you might squirm with embarrassment. As for his love goddesses--don't get me started.
Why put up with so much that seems insufferable? Because, at the end of Eternity and a Day, Angelopoulos somehow translates a character from the world of dreams to the world of reality--and from past to present--instantaneously, before your eyes. No special effects are required--no makeup, no morphing, no tricks done in the editing room. The actor Bruno Ganz merely turns his back to the camera, and with that he passes from one state of being to another. I've seen cinematic artistry on this level before: In Vampyr, Carl Dreyer changed a character from human to monster with a single smile; in Ordet he filmed a convincing resurrection, just by having a woman move one hand. But that exhausts my list of precedents. If you want to be present at another such transformative moment, when the impossible happens in plain sight, you will need to watch Eternity and a Day. And I think you'll be glad for a second reason if you make it to the end, when Ganz recites a few seemingly random words. Spoken like a poem, this verbal grab-bag brings back the seemingly disparate events you've been witnessing, making them add up with a sudden, heartbreaking concision.
Always a comforting screen presence--thoughtful and shambling, but too surprised by the world's mere existence ever to seem ponderous--Ganz here resembles an intelligent bear, gently searching for the place of his final hibernation. Thickly bearded and dressed in an old raincoat, he plays a well-regarded writer named Alexandre who is about to check in to the hospital, with no expectation of coming out again. In preparation, Alexandre has stripped himself of his belongings: his apartment in the city, and also the seaside house where he lived throughout his childhood and marriage. All that's left to him now is his dog (which he hopes to give away), his memories (which are full of regrets) and his car.
The car brings on the complications. While stopped at a traffic light, it attracts the services of a squeegee boy--a tiny blond kid in a windbreaker and sneakers--who in turn has the bad luck at that moment of attracting the cops. Through the rear window of Alexandre's car, a band of them becomes visible as they chase down the other squeegee boys on the street. "Get in!" Alexandre yells, then drives the kid to safety, or what passes for it at the moment.
That's his first encounter with the boy (Achilleas Skevis). The second sends the two characters off on an impromptu journey, during which Alexandre learns how a 7-year-old winds up on the street. This boy is an undocumented refugee--an ethnic Greek from southern Albania, who crossed mountains and minefields to get this far, and who will soon risk further illegal crossings.
Alexandre, too, knows something about expatriation. As you piece together his story, you understand he was a man of the left who fled Greece after the 1967 coup, so that much of his writing career was spent in places where he couldn't hear his own language. Given this experience--as well as his literary eminence, his white hairs and his automobile--he might be expected to adopt a lofty attitude toward the boy. But he doesn't--and that's what I find most remarkable about Eternity and a Day. If you go past the allegorizing, the posturing, the painterliness--everything in the film that's merely artful--and get to the art, you discover a sense of awe, which is as honest and transformative as the film's closing shot. The boy humbles Alexandre. Just when the old man feels he's seen enough for a lifetime, the boy comes along and reveals a new world, frightening and unexpected. He even reveals the language of this world, giving Alexandre the scattered words that become, in the end, his poem.