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.