Eternity And A Day

REVIEW by Willard Manus

Recently, I had a chance to revisit (on DVD), ETERNITY AND A DAY, Theo Angelopoulos's 1998 film (a Palme D'Or winner at Cannes). Angelopoulos is, of course, a Greek director with a reputation that is as large in Europe as it is infintesimal in the United States, except among cineastes and festival groupies.

Problems with distributors account for some of the reasons that a major talent like Angelopoulos isn't better known here, but the main reason lies with Angelopoulos himself, whose style and content go against the modern grain of filmmaking. For much of his career he has concerned himself with the history and politics of Greece, though always in a way that manages to extract universal truths. His style also puts people off: scenes shot from a distance in long, slow takes often lasting several minutes. This in a cinematic age where smash cuts and endless (and mostly meaningless) closeups are the norm.

Angelopoulos' palette and his use of light are equally idiosyncratic. He loves to shoot in shades of grey, usually at dawn or dusk, and is most comfortable when it's raining or snowing. Not for him the postcard images of Greece as a land of light, beauty and romance. Angelopoulos also eschews gratuitous violence--violence of any kind is almost always offstage--and has little use for traditional script construction. Most of his films do not have a central character, focusing instead on an ensemble, a tightly-linked group of friends or colleagues. Dialogue is sparse, emotions reigned in, with silence held to be as important as sound. Even his music, composed by Eleni Karaindrou, is used sparingly: just a few haunting motifs repeated at key moments for maximum impact.

Though such techniques place Angelopoulos outside the Hollywood mainstream, he has built an audience base in Europe, one that is sufficiently large enough for him to secure funding for his work. Angelopoulos has also won many major awards. The Travelling Players was voted by the Italian Film Critics Association as the most important film for the decade of the l970s as well as one of the top films in the history of cinema by the International Film Critics Association. Ulysses' Gaze won the Grand Prix at Cannes and in 1989 Landscape in the Mist copped a Felix (European 'Oscar') award.

Angelopoulos hasn't helped his own cause by remaining aloof from the marketing and promotional campaigns that might have helped make him become better known in the USA. A few years ago, for instance, he bowed out of a tour of college campuses with Ulysses which had been set up for him by Andrew Horton, author of the only English-language, full-length book written about him, The Films of Theo Angelopoulos (Princeton University Press). The cancellation was sudden and left numerous film clubs holding the bag.

On Eternity and a Day Angelopoulos was teamed up with Merchant Ivory Films, a company skilled at marketing art-circuit features (A Room With a View, Maurice and Howard's End are just a few of its successful credits). But even with its help, Eternity and a Day did not become a break-out hit for the director, perhaps because it was subtitled and had no American actors in its cast. Then too, it was every bit as slow and deliberate as his previous works.

The story centers on the final days of Alexander (the Swiss actor Bruno Ganz), a well-regarded Greek writer who is terminally ill, and it opens with a shot of his old family mansion at dawn. A young boy's voice is heard, "Come, Alexander, we will go to the island and go diving to look at the ancient city."

Alexander's youth and old age are continually juxtaposed in the course of the narrative, which at two hours qualifies as one of Angelopoulos' shortest. Both past and present haunt Alexander, who has lost his wife (the radiant Isabelle Renauld) to death and his daughter to a bad marriage with a cold-hearted yuppie. Alexander blames himself, not others, for his fate. "I never finished anything," he admits in voice-over. We learn that he is referring to his life as well as his work. He has exiled himself from those who loved him and whom he himself loved. Facing death, he realizes he is alone.

Alexander re-examines his life through the prism of flashbacks. Though journeys are at the heart of most of Angelopoulos' films, Eternity isn't all interior voyage and memory. Like the hero of Visconti's Death in Venice, Alexander becomes interested in a young boy. His interest is not sexual-- Alexander isn't a repressed homosexual, like Visconti's old man--and the boy is underaged, a Greek-Albanian street-urchin. Alexander saves him twice, first from the police and then from being sold on the adoption black-market to an English couple.

Alexander connects with the boy in a way that he could not with his wife and friends. The connection also reawakens his own humanity; like another memorable old man, the hero of the Japanese film Ikiru, Alexander begins to live intensely--and to know joy and love--on the verge of death.

Rich in irony and complexity, shot through with sadness and regret tempered by the possibility of redemption and reconciliation, Eternity is not only a moving film but a summation of Angelopoulos' life. For forty years he has been making compelling films on important themes. Isn't it time America gave him the recognition he deserves?