ETERNITY AND A DAY
Directed by Theo Angelopolous
Written by Angelopolous with Tonino Guerra and Petros Markaris
With Bruno Ganz, Isabelle Renauld and Achilleas Skevis
Distributed by Merchant Ivory Films/Artistic License Films
I'm tempted to spend at least a paragraph making fun of the humorless pomposity of ETERNITY AND A DAY's weakest moments, but simply doing so would be a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water. After Theo Angelopolous threw a temper tantrum on-stage at Cannes in 1995 because ULYSSES' GAZE "only" won the Grand Jury Prize, last year's Cannes jury finally rewarded him with a Palme D'Or. In light of the American press' appalling coverage of this year's Cannes awards - culminating in VARIETY critic Todd McCarthy's tirade about the need to wipe difficult films off the face of the earth - I think it's worth taking a closer look at ETERNITY AND A DAY to see if its facade of banal "poetry" conceals any genuine epiphanies. Ironically, part of its problem may be that it makes a half-hearted stab towards being the kind of crowdpleaser McCarthy yearns for; Angelopolous' three-minute tracking shots are a great deal more "entertaining" than his film's plot or characters.
Alexandre (Bruno Ganz) is an elderly, well-respected poet dying slowly of a terminal - although unspecified - illness, who sinks into melancholy when he realizes that he'd ignored his late wife Anna (Isabelle Renauld) in favor of his work. After meeting up with an Albanian street boy (Achileas Skavis), one of many illegal immigrants who hustle to survive, he winds up driving around Greece with him. While traveling towards the Albanian border with the boy, he looks back on his life in a series of reveries, usually juxtaposed onto the present-day scenes.
A friend recently told me that he thought BESIEGED would be a much better film were it silent, and I feel much the same way about ETERNITY AND A DAY. The basic story is a tired ol' tale about a Bitter Old (Wo)Man's Redemption Through Taking Care Of A Child As Both Learn A Valuable Lesson About Life, a standby in recent Miramax-style "arthouse" films like CENTRAL STATION and KOLYA. Co-writer Tonino Guerra has also collaborated with Antonioni and Tarkovsky, and his work with Angelopolous unfortunately reproduces those directors' tendencies to match visual eloquence with clumsy or pretentious dialogue. Not only do Alexandre's musings sound like a 19-year-old college student's notion of mature wisdom, the boy also speaks in much the same way.
Because quoting bad dialogue in a review is much easier than doing justice to Angelopolous' exquisite visual style, it's easy for critics to dismiss ETERNITY AND A DAY unfairly. In terms of narrative momentum, it moves quite slowly, yet its camera is almost constantly in motion. As Alexandre's memories unfold and he travels across Greece, the film simultaneously proceeds in two directions: backwards in time and forwards in space. While his reminisces are full of self-consciously "Proustian" bilge - even the scenes in which he spans years in a single shot are much clumsier than their counterparts in THE TRAVELING PLAYERS and ULYSSES' GAZE - the camera's physical movement is mesmerizing. ETERNITY AND A DAY succeeds most when it restricts itself to recording Alexandre's moment-to-moment perceptions. Angelopolous' very long takes and very slow tracking shots simulate the point of view a flaneur with his or her eyes cast towards the horizon in search of surprise, or even the perspective of a WINGS OF DESIRE angel swooping around a city. He often rewards our patience with a bravura moment, although his grasps for lyricism also fumble frequently.
The roads and coastline of Greece are a far cry from the American highways celebrated by Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan - and even from the autobahns of Kraftwerk's music and Wim Wenders' 70s films - but ETERNITY AND A DAY, like many other Angelopolous films, is about the condition of being "on the road" all the same. With THE TRAVELING PLAYERS, begun at the tail end of the Colonels' dictatorship and finished shortly after Greece's return to democracy in 1974, he made an epic about the failures and betrayals suffered by his country during and after World War II, but his recent films have been more reluctant to address political questions directly. (Maybe one needs to be Greek in order to understand their subtext.) Judging from the way ULYSSES' GAZE addressed the war in Bosnia with platitudes and made it play second fiddle to Harvey Keitel's angst, this may be for the better, but I wish that Angelopolous could still make a film with the urgency of THE TRAVELING PLAYERS. He now seems as much a "European" filmmaker - as one can see from the casting of a Greek-dubbed Bruno Ganz here and of Marcello Mastroianni in several earlier films - as a Greek one. Fair enough: in LANDSCAPE IN THE MIST - another road movie about two children searching for a father they mistakenly believe to be living in Germany - he created a resonant, suggestive metaphor for the malaise of post-WWII Europe. Unfortunately, ETERNITY AND A DAY is as much a symptom of this malaise as an analysis of it.
Angelopolous obviously thinks of himself as the last European master, but he now works in an age where stars have overtaken masters and the concept of mastery itself has been discredited. I was startled to read film.com critic Peter Brunette only now wave a reluctant goodbye to Eurocentrism in a recent article on the Singapore Film Festival, which suddenly brought the tremendous vitality of Asian cinema home to him. It's not exactly news that festivals and hip cinephiles now look more often to Iran and East Asia for innovation than to the beleaguered national cinemas of most European countries. The rigorous austerity of directors like Bergman, Antonioni, Tarkovsky and Angelopolous has fallen out of fashion, while the more Americanized, pop-oriented tradition of the French New Wave continues to influence young filmmakers all over the world. In this light, it's easy to read Alexandre's struggle to make sense of his life in its final moments as a metaphor for the European artist 's searh for a place in a world where his work seems less relevant and his privileges less justifiable with every passing day. At its worst (and most verbose), ETERNITY AND A DAY lends a great deal of credence to the death sentences pronounced on European cinema by critics like McCarthy and John Harkness, but its images' evocative lyricism also reminds me why masters were once taken seriously.