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Eternity and A Day

Review by David Luty
Posted 28 May 1999

  Directed by Theo Angelopolous

Starring Bruno Ganz, Fabrizio Bentivoglio,
Isabelle Renauld, Achilleas Skevis,
Alexandra Ladikou and Despina Bebedeli

Written by Theo Angelopolous, Tonino Guerra,
and Petros Markaris

Photograhy Directed by Girgos Arvanitis and Andreas Sinanos

Edited by Yannis Tsitsopoulos

Music by Eleni Karaindrou

 

Eternity and a Day is a deliberately paced drama of extraordinary physical beauty, but its human center is too vacant to resonate.

In 1988, Theo Angelopolous made a film called Landscape in the Mist, but that title is equally appropriate for his last two films, Ulysses’ Gaze, and his latest, the Cannes Film Festival winner Eternity and a Day. With both, Angelopolous shows a predilection for large, beautiful landscapes both natural and man-made, especially those shrouded in a wet, ghostly fog. Many of these images are admittedly stunning in their stark austerity, but the unfortunate by-product of such large expansive beauty is the dwarfing of the human element. Angelopolous clearly has huge ambitions, but unlike a Lean or a Kurosawa, he isn’t as able to ground his grand visions in the human specific. The landscapes in the mist overwhelm the behavior of the human characters that populate them, and so these films, which purport to tell entirely human stories (unlike those of say, a Stanley Kubrick), are tinged with a frosty impersonality.

Eternity and a Day features an older Greek man named Alexander who is dying of some unnamed ailment, living his last day before entering a hospital to wait out his death. Played with a strong, quiet dignity by veteran actor Bruno Ganz (most recognizable for Wings of Desire), Alexander takes stock of his life, and comes to some sad, unfortunate conclusions. He was a poet who dedicated his life to finishing the work of another dead poet, and in the process failed to pay proper attention to the living in his life. He finds this out firsthand, when he re-examines a letter left to him by his long dead wife, a letter that outlines one particular day where she wished he was more emotionally present. He is stricken with the sadness of missed opportunity, and so he roams the Greek countryside, mulling over such mistakes. In the midst (and the mist) of the mulling, he comes across a street urchin, a young Albanian boy who is part of a group of street urchins running from unsympathetic police and black-market orphanages looking for new product. Alexander, in a last grasp at emotional connection, takes the boy under his wing and tries to put him in a safe place.

That last sentence implies much more eventfulness than Eternity and a Day is ready to provide. With very limited success, the movie alternates its focus between Alexander’s ruminations of his past, which are often beautifully literal, and his relationship to the boy, which becomes more maddeningly surreal as the film progresses. Neither of these concerns can manage to escape the suffocating self-indulgence of Angelopolous, who has no trouble spending an endless amount of time leaving the camera on images that have nothing but the most peripheral relevance to the story he’s trying to tell. At one point we see a young married couple, who are complete strangers as far as the film is concerned, dancing during their outdoor wedding for what seems a lifetime as Alexander looks on. Yes, he’s watching two lovers begin their lives as his squandered love life is ending, and so he has more reason to feel regret, but this is a fairly obvious point that can be gleaned pretty quickly. It is a pretty, vivacious image, but how long is too long to hold on it? At what point does a held image of beauty cease to become poetic, and turn into monotonous indulgence? Angelopolous forces such distinctions to be made.

Perhaps if he spent less time catering to his own taste for imposing scenery he could have made a more fully realized connection between Alexander’s two concurrent preoccupations. But the connection turns out to resonate just as weakly and obviously as the dancing couple - the kid is Alexander’s last shot at caring for a person. That sort of human concern is nothing to sneeze at, but that is precisely what Angelopolous does. In addition to the director’s slower than snail pacing, where little time is dedicated to people actually doing anything, the poet-boy relationship dissolves into a cold, murky abstraction, though not without the sort of cutesy, unearned emotionality that’s par for the course with such a coupling. The only place Angelopolous can find real, textured emotionality is in Alexander’s flashbacks to that wasted day with his wife. They have a warm, loving feel to them, and make for the only case where Alexander’s melancholy is made palpable. They work as a literalization of Alexander’s thoughts and feelings, which are what Eternity and a Day is ultimately about. Thoughts and feelings. Not majestically misty vistas. This is a story that takes place behind the character’s eyes, not in front of them, no matter how beautiful and impressive those sights may be. 


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