Eternity and a Day
1998, NR, 132 min. Directed by Theo Angelopoulos. Starring Iris Chatziantoniou, Isabelle Renauld, Achileas Skevis, Bruno Ganz.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Sept. 24, 1999
To enter the world of Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos is to gain a whole new set of reference points for the word “slow.” With an aesthetic seemingly ready-made for fans of Internet weather-cams, his solemn, dreamlike films unfold in an endless procession of glacial tracking shots, minimal action, and soulful, incantatory dialogue. Eternity and a Day is cut from the same cloth as its predecessor, Ulysses' Gaze (1995), with a similar theme of recapturing lost time in a magical-realistic trek through personal and cultural history. Ganz plays (rather catatonically for much of the film) a dour, sixtyish Greek poet named Alexander who has an unnamed terminal illness that promises to finish him off in a matter of days. While driving himself to the hospital, he meets a young Albanian refugee (Skevis), whom he rescues from a black-market auction of kidnapped children. As Alexander nears the end of his literal and figurative voyages, he sees in the love-starved boy an embodiment of everyone else he's neglected in a life dedicated first and foremost to art. This flood of regret and self-doubt has already been set in motion by his discovery of a 30-year-old letter written by his long-dead wife, Anna. In this heartbreaking letter, which Alexander has never seen until this moment, Anna begs her beloved but emotionally distant mate for just one day when he is hers and hers alone. During his few remaining hours, Alexander tries to salve his guilt and regret by giving something of lasting significance to his young traveling buddy. Meanwhile, he ruefully ponders the artist's harsh zero-sum choice: Depth and richness can be had either in one's artistic legacy or one's here-and-now existence, but not both. To feed one, the other must be impoverished. Personally, I've never felt the choice was so stark. I'd even argue that it takes a live, wideband connection to real life to make art that matters, and that both the impact and popularity of Angelopoulos' work might be enhanced if he were to … I don't know, indulge himself in a degenerate Chateau Marmont weekend with Courtney Love or something. Still, Angelopoulos' uncompromising idealism about his work certainly explains why his films, the most recent of which make Wild Strawberries seem lightweight by comparison, are the way they are. Lush with heartfelt, eloquently voiced ideas and touching in their romantic vision of art as a quest for ultimate truth, they seem to belong to a different age. It's almost axiomatic that Eternity and a Day will wind up being widely lionized by critics (it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year) while being seen only by the staunchest of arthouse devotees -- who are, after all, the only audience Angelopoulos seems to care about reaching. If what I'm conveying comes across more as a nod of respect than an outright rave, the effect is entirely intentional. Still, consider giving this worthy anachronism a couple of hours of your time. If you can tune into its somber, hypnotic wavelength, you may be surprised at the raw emotional impact it delivers in key scenes, and at its ability to provoke your imagination long afterward.