ETERNITY AND A DAY (Mia Eoniotita Ke Mia Mera)

(director/writer: Theo Angelopoulos; screenwriters: Giorgio Silvagni/Tonino Guerra/Petros Markaris; cinematographers: Georges Arvanitis/Andreas Sinanos; editor: Yannis Tsitsopoulos; cast: Bruno Ganz (Alexander), Isabelle Renauld (Anna), Achileas Skevis (Albanian Boy), Despina Bebedeli (Mother), Fabrizio Bentivoglio (The Poet), Iris Chatziantoniou (Daughter), Eleni Gerasimidou (Urania), Vassilis Seimenis (Son-In-Law); Runtime: 134; Artistic Licence Films; 1998-Greece/France/Italy)

“The film is stunningly beautiful: visually, it is a masterpiece.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Theo Angelopoulos (The Travelling Players) directed this 1998 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner about a renown poet who is dying. There was something too elegant and stagy about this sobering study of Alexander (Ganz) who is leaving his home for the last time, for it to be heartfelt. He is going to the hospital to die from a terminal illness but by meeting an Albanian 8-year-old illegal immigrant, he gets reinvigorated about life and changes his mind about his current despair.

The film is stunningly beautiful: visually, it is a masterpiece. The film’s shots of the Thessaloniki landscapes are monumental, but at times the story was pretentious and much too tedious. The poet is still searching in this 24-hour period, trying to find his roots and resolve his moral dilemma, trying to be no longer scared of dying, which is the same theme Tarkovsky used for “Nostalgia.” The other evident influences on the Greek filmmaker are Bergman’s somber look at family life and Antonioni’s picturesque and quirky photography.

The film’s title comes from when Alexander’s attractive wife Anna (Renauld) who is deceased, but is seen in flashback as his young wife answering his question of how long tomorrow lasts. She says it will last for eternity and a day! This memory of her comes back to him when he is alone by the sea at his journey’s end, and he jumps for joy thinking that he will meet his eternally youthful wife on the other side.

The poet’s search starts mundanely…he visits the modern but cold apartment of his daughter to say he is going on a trip. The poet has her read a letter he just found that Anna’s mother wrote to him at the time she was born. This is used as an excuse for Alexander to think back to the happy times in that house and the birth of his daughter. Her cold fish of a husband then comes out of the bath and gruffly tells the poet they sold the old house by the sea, where the poet had so many lovely memories. The poet can only look disappointed and doesn’t even ask his son-in-law, who hates dogs, to watch his dog while he goes on his trip. Instead he will interrupt the wedding of his servant Urania’s son, to get her to take the dog. There wasn’t much point to that pretty visual scene, except to watch the bride and groom stylishly dance through the streets of this small northern Greek town.

The film raises two nagging but specious philosophical questions that will haunt him on his last journey, one he says out loud to himself after buying words for his poetry: “Why am I always a stranger in exile?” The other he asks of his ghostlike mother he visits in a hospital-like setting: “Why didn’t we know how to love?”

The poet is on a bum trip as he acts as if he were in a dazed dreamworld, thinking glumly about his death. At a red light he feels sorry for one of the traffic kids cleaning his window with a squeegee, who is suddenly being chased by the police. He decides to give the kid a ride and finds out he is Albanian (Skevis), and is used by a ring that does scam adoptions to wealthy Greeks who can’t adopt legally.

The difference in their journey’s being that the boy’s exile is political, while the poet’s is spiritual.

The poet has a feeling of rekindled hope when riding with the young orphan. The poet decides that he wants to help take the tight-lipped kid back to Albania. But the kid lied to him about having a grandmother there and they trudge for nothing through the snowy border road along the misty mountain passes, amid the barren landscape. It is scenes like this that Angelopoulos shoots best evoking a sense of being lost and alienated from the world, as the two strangers come to the border and end up running away from the border guard.

Out of his compassion for the child the poet takes a deep interest in the child’s problems, but that relationship is strangely unmoving because the kid has no personality. The relationship is fueled only because of what they both have in common: they are afraid to be alone on their perilous journeys. But their bonding never seemed real it was like a dance where one of them kept stepping on the foot of the other, and they were never seen dancing gracefully together.

Ganz spoke in German when performing, which was later dubbed into Greek. But the little dialogue seems too supercilious anyway to really matter, as the weight of this film is captured only in its photography. As the film’s spiritual guide, Ganz brings some authority to this desperate man searching for meaning to his incomplete life. The poet has worked since his wife’s death, on a 19th century unfinished poem. But the story seems too symbolic and arty to make a direct impact, every thought no matter how banal has to be philosophically scrutinized.

We get to hear all of the poet’s thoughts, his regrets, his past visions, and how his life is shaped by his thoughts and the words he has paid dearly to put into his work. The film is a slow meditation on his life memories, where every stop he makes gives him a chance to recapture his life again. This film is a conspicuous art film (get a load of that overworked bus scene, which depicts a spiritual route, where every passenger is used as a symbol–one of them is a poet in 19th century dress, who symbolizes that we still have not learned our lesson of virtue from the past).

To its credit, the film has certain scenes that stay with you the way a meditation exercise does. This may even alleviate some of the film’s dullness. The 66-year-old director has made an accessible film despite its ambiguity. But it was done in by its overstated symbolism and its idiosyncratic statement was not that deep for all its huffing and puffing. The film could have ended forty minutes sooner and still would have said what it ended up saying.