A celebrated author faces the end of his life in Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Eternity and a Day,” the impressive latest offering of Greek maestro Theo Angelopoulos, which is one of the helmer’s most accessible films and is certain to win him friends — but doubtless some naysayers also — on the fest route this summer. Boosted by its prize, pic is assured theatrical bookings in territories where this kind of lyrical, intelligent fare attracts upscale audiences, with Eurotube airings sure to follow.
Since his first film, “Reconstruction,” made almost 30 years ago, Angelopoulos, a philosopher as well as a poet, has created a great body of work with 11 imposing feature films. Most of his pics have centered on journeys undertaken by his protagonists, journeys that often lead through dank, misty landscapes to the very frontiers of Greece.
The collaboration between Angelopoulos and his great cinematographer, Giorgos Arvanitis, has provided unforgettable imagery, often via long, complicated tracking shots. Helmer’s Euro political themes and his rigorously stately pacing have proved a turn-off for some audiences, with even some literate film buffs considering these elements precious. Although they are found in “Eternity,” there’s also a new tenderness and emotional intensity.
Since the early ’80s, Angelopoulos has often employed foreign actors to play the leading roles in his films, among them Marcello Mastroianni and Harvey Keitel. This time Swiss thesp Bruno Ganz has come on board to portray Alexander, a celebrated scribe who still lives in the gracious old family house where he grew up, by the sea in Thessaloniki. But now the house, slightly damaged in a recent earthquake, is surrounded by ugly apartment blocks, and his daughter and son-in-law have decided to sell it.
Alexander has to leave in any case because he’s seriously ill. He’s certain that once he admits himself to hospital he’ll never leave, and so he’s immersed in nostalgia during what could be the last days of his life. He especially remembers his late, beloved wife, Anna. In a poignant scene, he shows his daughter a letter her mother had written to him soon after she was born.
Alexander’s chief regret is that he’s never completed anything to his own satisfaction. He’s been working on the last unfinished work of a 19th-century poet, but this, too, has to be set aside: His most pressing task is to find a home for his dog. His son-in-law won’t have the animal, which Alexander eventually leaves with his faithful servant.
But on this particular Sunday he unexpectedly finds himself involved with a complete stranger, a little boy (Achileas Skevis) who’s one of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Greek-speaking area of neighboring Albania. Having rescued the kid from a gang engaged in selling such youngsters to wealthy Greeks apparently ineligible to adopt a child legally, Alexander tries to get him back to his grandmother in Albania (unaware at first that the child has lied and the grandmother doesn’t exist).This provides the reason for the journey, a crucial ingredient in Angelopoulos films.
Typical of the filmmaker is an indelible image in which the old man and the boy reach the misty frontier and are confronted by a surreal image of figures hanging on the barbed wire barrier. Equally impressive is a later scene staged in a bus, where the other passengers include a sleepy leftist carrying a red flag, a group of musicians and the 19th-century poet whose work Alexander has been attempting to finish.
Throughout this gloriously photographed film, Angelopoulos seamlessly switches between present and past, with the protagonist reliving key moments from his life while clinging to the simple, unexpected friendship of the abandoned child. Interestingly, even in the flashbacks, Alexander is portrayed by Ganz, rather than a younger actor, with no attempt to make the thesp look more youthful.
It’s the touching central relationship with the boy, plus the premonitions of mortality, that give this impressive film its firm center. Ganz, dubbed into Greek, is a solid presence as the troubled protagonist, while young Skevis is fine in the surefire role of the child. In the radiant flashback sequences, Isabelle Renauld glows as Anna, the wife Alexander adored and who lives on his dreams and memories.
Cinematographer Arvanitis was joined as d.p. on this visually rich film by his longtime assistant, Andreas Sinani. The crisp, clear images and the fluid, sinuous camera movements are testament to the superb craftsmanship of both men. Another regular collaborator, Eleni Karaindrou, provides a typically haunting music score.
“Eternity and a Day” finds Angelopoulos refining his themes and style. Just as other great filmmakers have in the past explored similar themes time and again, so Angelopoulos has evolved and come up with one of his most lucid and emotional journeys thus far.