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.
But enough of endings. How does Eternity and a Day begin? It starts in memory or dream, with Alexandre as a boy of about the same age as the refugee. Back at the seaside house, which is shuttered at dawn, he too is about to go on a voyage: a child’s adventure, which he imagines will take him to a magical place where time has stopped.
A boy and a boy; a voyage and a voyage; a beginning and, at the end (though time never stops), another beginning. Eternity and a Day is ultimately that simple. If it takes a while to own up to this poverty of spirit, circling slowly toward the confession, that’s perhaps because the film itself resembles a humbled old man. It speaks when it’s become too full for silence–and only for the sake of children who are mostly beyond its help.
Would Eternity and a Day qualify as a human rights film? The question occurs to me because of the eclecticism of the tenth annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, which will run June 11-24 at the Walter Reade Theater of Lincoln Center. This year, the series presents thirty-three films. Some inform; some prompt the conscience; some entertain, while having more than jollification in mind. But what might be the functional meaning of “human rights,” if the term can be applied to all these pictures? And what about them, as a lot, could possibly be festive?
Judged on the basis of subject matter, the program might better be called a Film Wake. Here, for example, is a series of brief pictures, none longer than five minutes, titled Spotlights on a Massacre: 10 Films Against 100 Million Anti-personnel Land Mines. Made by an international roster of directors–Youssef Chahine, Jaco Van Dormael, Mathieu Kassovitz, Pavel Lounguine and Volker Schlöndorff, among others–the films have been co-produced by Handicap International and Bertrand Tavernier’s Little Bear Productions, bringing art-house star power to an urgent cause.
The films in Spotlights on a Massacre will be dropped like bomblets among the features on the program. Perhaps the lightest of these–and a film that’s close to my heart–is The Cloud, a wryly expressionistic new picture by the Argentine master Fernando Solanas. Here, he makes literal the metaphor of a political climate. Although “the flood”–that is, the dirty war–ended years ago, a skywide cloud continues to hang over Buenos Aires, where it’s rained for 1,600 days straight. People feel heavy, soggy, glum–even the old-style, carnivalesque lefties of the Mirror Theater, whose building is about to be bulldozed to make way for a mixed-use development.
Other notable dramatic features in the series include Goran Paskaljevic’s The Powder Keg (to be released this summer), a comedy of dangerously ricocheting characters set in almost-present-day Belgrade; David Riker’s The City, an anthology of stories of Latin American immigrants in New York; a revival of Robert Wise’s 1959 bank-heist noir, Odds Against Tomorrow, with star Harry Belafonte and screenwriter Abraham Polonsky scheduled to attend; and a special presentation of Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike, featuring live musical accompaniment by the maestros of sproing-and-chunk grandeur, the Alloy Orchestra.
As for the documentaries: You can catch Xackery Irving on the recent revival of the American chain gang; Slawomir Grunberg and Ben Crane on School Prayer: A Community at War; Maria Fuglevaag Warsinski on the Srebrenica slaughter; Greta Schiller on Cecil Williams, a gay white theater director from South Africa who was arrested in 1962 for driving in a car with Nelson Mandela; Shui-Bo Wang on his own life from the Cultural Revolution through the Tiananmen Square massacre; and Barbara Sonneborn on the widows, herself included, on both sides of the Vietnam War.
If all of these pictures can come together under the heading of “human rights,” it’s perhaps because the term was born in vagueness. As Michael Ignatieff argued in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, the drafting committee for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights understood that it would fail to produce a document if it tried to describe existing conditions, specify remedies or even explain the legal and philosophical bases on which people might be said to have inherent rights. These matters were too divisive. And so “the Declaration’s vaunted universality is as much a testament to what the drafters kept out of it as to what they put in.”
But films, by their nature, are heaps of details. They unavoidably put into “human rights” the specifics that the Declaration’s drafters had to keep out. So despair if you must over the inability of an artwork to fill empty stomachs or pull people out of jail. The pictures in the Human Rights Watch series are all useful in that they give flesh to a grand abstraction. And they’re festive to the degree that they live up to an ambition expressed in The Cloud. As that film’s carnivalesque lefties sing at the end of their show, “The theater teaches you to say no.”