Friday May 28, 1999

     Theo Angelopoulos' towering, elegiac "Eternity and a Day" takes its title from the hero's late wife's answer to his question, "How long is tomorrow?" Facing death himself from cancer, Alexandre (Bruno Ganz), a middle-aged Greek writer and poet heralded as the conscience of his generation, is confronting the notion of eternity and longs to experience one final perfect day, to recapture the happiness of a day, some 30 years earlier, at the beach with his wife (Isabelle Renauld), their new-born daughter and their relatives. (Significantly, it occurred just before Greece fell under military rule.)
     From his bedroom in his family's elegant 19th century seaside mansion in Thessaloniki, Alexandre has a view of that very beach. But as his pain grows unbearable, he must say farewell to his home and enter a hospital to die.
     "Eternity and a Day," a shimmering, seductive reverie, begins with Alexandre overwhelmed with the feeling that, in his absorption in his work, he failed to express his love for his wife and others sufficiently.
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     This failure in turn is the reason he was never able to finish a cherished project, completing an unfinished poem by a 19th century Greek poet who had been so long in exile that upon his return home he had forgotten so much of his native language that he actually began buttonholing people in the street, offering to pay them for the words that eluded him. Alexandre sees in this poet his own emotional self-exile, his own inability to express his feelings.
     There's no small irony in that Alexandre recalls in such detail that special day, Sept. 20, 1966, because of his discovery of a letter his wife wrote to him, expressing her love for him and her hope that, realizing that he lives alongside her and their baby daughter rather than with them, she'll be able "to capture him between books." When it comes time to drop by his daughter's apartment to give this treasured letter to her, we realize that, despite the clear affection between father and daughter, he has kept his distance, even hiding the state of his health.
     Before he--or we--can get any notion of just how he's going to go about attaining that one last perfect day, he crosses paths with a boy (Achilleas Skevis), who looks to be around 9 and who squeegees the windshield of his car while he's waiting for a light to change. The boy repays Alexandre's tip with a radiant smile. When he encounters the boy again, under vastly different circumstances, he is caught up in a wholly unexpected adventure. The past continues to flood over him, but he realizes that what the boy, an Albanian refugee, needs more than anything is to feel loved; in short, Alexandre has unexpectedly stumbled upon a path of redemption. Skevis, who can express a capacity for reflection way beyond his years, and the ever-formidable Ganz, with his gift for plumbing the depths of his soul, are an unforgettable match.
     All of Angelopoulos' films are odysseys--it is not too much to call him the modern Homer--and few artists in any medium use the journey as a metaphor for the eternal cycle of birth, life and death with such forceful eloquence and passion. No matter how natural an exchange between two people may be in a given moment, Angelopoulos will soon be affirming and reaffirming his vision of life as an endless procession, into which his characters and settings flow. And no matter how intimate a scene, Angelopoulos will return again and again to vistas of great depth; movement within his frames is echoed by endless tracking shots.
     In this manner he is himself able to evoke a sense of the eternal and the immediate simultaneously, and thus at once cover terrain psychological, political and geographical. Most important, he is able to do this so compellingly, investing his images with such emotion and meaning, that his stylized, stately paced films catch you up completely and you find yourself surprised when they're over--they can seem a full hour shorter than they actually are.
     Working with cinematographers Giorgos Arvanitis and Andreas Sinanos and composer Eleni Karaindrou, whose beautiful and stirring score greatly reinforces the film's impact, Angelopoulos has created another masterpiece, one that recalls such classics as Bergman's "Wild Strawberries" and Kurosawa's "Ikiru" (To Live).


Eternity and a Day, 1999. Unrated. A Merchant Ivory Films release in association with Artistic License Films. Director Theo Angelopoulos. Executive producer Phoebe Economopoulos. Screenplay by Angelopoulos, in collaboration with Tonino Guerra, Petros Markaris. Cinematographers Giorgos Arvanitis, Andreas Sinanos. Editor Yannis Tsitsopoulos. Music Eleni Karaindrou. Costumes Giorgos Patsas. Sets Giorgos Ziakas, Costas Dimitriadis. In Greek, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes. Bruno Ganz as Alexandre. Achilleas Skevis as The Boy. Isabelle Renauld as Anna, Alexandre's Wife. Fabrizio Bentivoglio as The Poet.