31 Days of Cinema, Day Twenty-Five: “Eternity and a Day”

I predicted a few days ago that Lore would go down as the best film I’ve seen this month, and I have nothing but to chalk it up to the magic of cinema to always surprise me: Lore has been surpassed by a rather wide margin. Theo Angelopoulos—the master of Greek cinema, killed in a motorbike accident in 2012 at age seventy-six—is poised to become one of my favorite filmmakers, and after much reflection, I am all but ready to induct his Landscape in the Mist into my all-time Top Ten. Eternity and a Day, which won him the Palme d’Or at Cannes, is much further credit to him. I wrote earlier of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia—which has a script by Tonino Guerra, who also collaborated with Angelopoulos on numerous films including this—and which has an estimated 117 shots in just over two hours. Eternity has fifty-four shots, give or take a couple, in about the same span of time. Long takes were Angelopoulos’ specialty. Each shot to him, and to his photographer Yorgos Arvanitis, was a theatrical construction, slow and patient but never glib and never contrived, always telling a complex, layered narrative in its own right. Many of his shots switch places and time periods without resorting to obvious cuts, gliding between and juxtaposing past and present with rarely matched smoothness and perfect clarity. With one pan, we travel back in time over a century. Later, characters from the present walk into and observe the past from their own era, then move on. That’s just one example. Time gains as much dimensionality and tangibility as space. One adapts to the story’s rhythm, learns to appreciate the artistry of such setups, realizes that such a film is sui generis.

The “eternity” of the title is Alexander (Bruno Ganz), a poet whose goal in life was to complete The Free Besieged, the incomplete epic poem of Dionysios Solomos, the author of the national anthem of Greece and Cyprus. Alexander has failed; he is terminally ill and somehow plans to euthanize himself the next day, or so I guess. He gives away possessions and reconnects with remaining family one last time. He flashes back to happier times with his late wife Anna (Isabelle Renauld). Maybe he is the “day” of the title, since that is all he has left. Or maybe the “day” is the boy (Achileas Skevis), the Albanian runaway who kills time squeegeeing dashboards, whom Alexander rescues on a whim from a black market adoption service—in a ten-minute sequence told almost without dialogue, which is one of the film’s highlights. Or maybe the boy is “eternity,” since that is what it seems like he has to look forward to once Alexander takes him under his wing. The film is rife with such contradictions and clashes. There is an infinitude in a day—in any unit of time, really—and the inverse of that truth is that a day has the ability to encapsulate an eternity. The concept of infinity/eternity itself is a grand paradox: you can add anything to it, and it will retain its character. The concept of “one”—of one day—is literally infinitesimal, is all but nothing, up against it. Or is it? I could go on; such is the nature of endlessness and thought. The film’s signature achievement is that it illustrates such a paradox by fleshing it out in Alexander and the boy, and the age groups they represent. Infinity in the sense of math can be grasped by children and adults alike, and both struggle with it equally.

Is there any theme more significant in the arts and in history than the generations? I don’t think so. All the other great themes of art—among them the negotiation between liberty and security, the fundaments of human dignity, the vain fight against mortality—seem to be subsumed by the crises and interplays between the old and young generations, the development of one into the other, the idea of our offspring as our ultimate legacy in the world. Eternity conveys this universal theme in the simplest way possible—with one kid and one old man on life’s threshold—and expands from there. Throughout time, society as a whole has had nothing much besides contempt for children; look at how they’ve been imprisoned in schools, streamlined into unskilled labor, perceived as innately stupid, tricked into thinking their perspectives and agonies are invalid, used as shock absorbers for the pettier concerns of adults. Respect for children is a standard to which I hold people in general, and few if any filmmakers have more esteem for and understanding of youths than Angelopoulos had. There’s a devastating sequence in which one runaway kid, Sélim, appears dead in a morgue. His fellow street kids gather in a warehouse, where the boy eulogizes his friend as Alexander watches in stunned silence. Listen to the boy’s speech with care, and you will see how his meditations on and experiences with death and the afterlife are no less profound than Alexander’s, maybe even more so. Really, the boy seems to ask, what is the afterlife? Does consciousness cease or go on forever? Will we be forever young or creatures of eternity? Both outcomes have their pros and cons, you know. I once wrote in a poem (of which I am quite proud), “The end is terrifying, so is eternity: heaven the olive branch between the two.” I am confident that Angelopoulos would have agreed with that sentiment.

After Alexander stumbles upon the boy and becomes his guardian by accident, he makes it his life’s final duty to protect and guide the boy for as long as he can. It’s a less ambitious, more manageable, even more immediately humane task for him to take on than wrestling with Solomos, yet his time is limited and the boy will soon have to fend for himself, just like normal. Both use their time with each other as a reprieve—and it is an essential and worthwhile reprieve, which crafts a great story. One John Lennon (not the Beatle) has written, in Boxcar Politics, that political “movement[s]” are often manifested in “physical movement.” This applies well to Angelopoulos, who tracks his characters’ progress and political maturation in terms of their walks, runs and moments of stasis through space, time, history and technology, and across borders social and geopolitical. In one harrowing scene, Alexander takes the boy north to the snow-capped border with Albania, where a tall fence has silhouettes of bodies plastered all over it. Small wonder why the men decide to turn back. After they return to Thessaloniki, they witness a classical wedding party, which Alexander rudely interrupts to give away his dog. Angelopoulos herein is also tracing the movement of motifs across his body of work. In the adoption scene, the boys are lined up against a wall; one kid protests simply by walking forward and is promptly shoved back. This echoes a scene from The Traveling Players, in which the acting troupe faces a firing squad and Aegisthus fights back. As he aged, the filmmaker grew closer to youth—an act of atavism disguised as paradox—and decided to show that rebellion does not develop with adulthood but rather is primal, in us at birth—and, in a way, purer when we are young. (Recall Bob Dylan’s wistful refrain: “Eh, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.”) The border crisis harkens back to Landscape, in which a young sister and brother (also named Alexander) head to Germany to reunite with their father, as if Germany bordered Greece and Cold War politics were nonexistent. That film also has a wedding scene interrupted by an animal—a horse, found dead.

Rest assured, the film can stand alone and is no less excellent viewed that way. Ganz as Alexander—hulking yet beaten down, artsy and snooty yet capable of tenderness and innate humanism—is near-perfect. I forgot right away that he was the actor who would go on to play Hitler. Renauld’s Anna is heard mostly in voice-over, from letters she wrote to her husband. Her dialogue is dense, ethereal, but appropriately so, and she imbues her words with enough emotion and poetry to make them compelling, and to get us to trust that she may well be talking to Alexander in some secret language that only they as lovers can understand, that we are not meant to interpret. The Italian actor Fabrizio Bentivoglio, as Solomos (yes, he does show up), has the daunting task of fleshing out a historic figure in a character’s national-mythological imagination without being garish. The key to his performance is its subtlety and nonchalance, and the way he (and Ganz with him) savors each unique Demotic Greek word that he purchases from common folk after his return from Italy. This is Angelopoulos’ way of cluing us in on art—film, in particular—as a constructive, economic process, with money and labor behind it, always a sign of the times it was made in—and on how art and the aural beauty of language and etymology depend on history and the generations to survive. Skevis as the boy is game for the challenge and matches Ganz in every scene. The men’s journey cannot last forever, and when they have two hours remaining, they can do nothing more mundane and unpretentious than go on a bus ride—a simple moment of mentorship made precious by context, which the filmmaker turns into yet another bravura set piece. In his obituary, critic David Thomson writes of the incompleteness that is reflected across Angelopoulos’ oeuvre, and of the irony (or is it?) that he was killed while in the middle of a film production, which will now be left unfinished forever. This is a man who seized at eternity and the eternal journey of man, and failed inexorably, but came up with a fragment of it that is plentiful and that does not fail to somehow symbolize infinity. The film’s denouement is inevitable and brutal; its emotional climax comes when Alexander parks in the middle of the road, longing for the boy to return just so he can clean his dashboard, for the twin youthful sensations of eternity and of carpe diem—of seizing each day, one by one—to return to his very mortal being, as we all do.

Let us hope that this film—and this director’s body of work—lasts for as long as its title prescribes.

Grade: A+

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31 Days of Cinema, Day Twenty-Five: “Eternity and a Day”

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