Theo Angelopoulos’ 1995 film Ulysses’ Gaze clocked in at three hours, sent some viewers scrambling hastily for the exits, and left others hunting for superlatives like "masterful," "powerful," and "brilliant." It is certainly not a film for the Star Wars crowd, but at that length and with a glacial pace, Ulysses’ Gaze demanded patience even of the art house groupies. Patience, though, was fully rewarded and the superlatives earned. Angelopoulos proves to be a poet of the screen, probing deeply, raising fundamental questions, and offering up characters, imagery, and screen magic second to none.
Eternity and a Day, a risky title for a film that will be reviewed by some critics with a ninety-minute attention span, actually runs a mere two hours and ten minutes, though it does show signs of cutting from what one imagines was a longer director’s cut. By way of comparison, recent films like There’s Something About Mary and Message in a Bottle were films of similar length: two hour films that seemed like four – all of it wasted. Angelopoulos may challenge the patience of our hurried age, but he challenges the intellect and the spirit as well, and he emphatically does not waste your time.
Time is a central concern to celebrated writer Alexandre (Bruno Ganz); he has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. As he makes preparations prior to entering the hospital, he travels in and out of his past and in and out of fantasy, seeking to make peace with a lifetime reaching its end. The fluidity of time and character in the narrative structure is a hallmark of Angelopoulos’ work and a direct descendant in technique and tone of films by Ingmar Bergman. It is both an ideal format for allowing onscreen explorations of interior journeys and a format that no other medium than film is better suited to exploit.
Most of Alexandre’s family get screen time: his mother (Despina Bebedeli), elegant in her prime, now living out her days in a nursing home, unable to console Alexandre from the fog into which aged minds retreat; his beautiful and loving wife Anna (Isabelle Renauld), who died young, but left him letters expressing how she treasured the days and her love for him; his daughter (Iris Hatziantoniou), attentive, but too focused on her own life to sense what is happening in her father’s. There is a somewhat formal, disconnected feel to the way these characters interact on screen because Angelopoulos is projecting the entire film from Alexandre’s point of view and the characters are his interior remembrances of the past; it is as if he were outside his own life looking in, but looking in only from his own memories. The other characters are mostly the shadows from his past, not living antagonists to Alex’ protagonist.
The major character in the present is an Albanian refugee (Achilleas Skevis), a street boy Alex saves, first from the police, then, in an extraordinary scene that has a tone of (nonsexual) corruption and moral decay (instantly evoking the tone of Kubrick’s orgy in Eyes Wide Shut), from kidnappers supplying the foreign adoption trade. The boy and Alex are both disconnected, both fearful – the boy of what is to come, still at the very beginning of his life, Alex of what he leaves behind at the end of his. The boy also represents emotionally for Alex the hope and the expectations of youth, when there seems to be unlimited time, time which is running out for Alex. The slow departure of a huge, brightly lit ship into the dark night, taking the boy to a new life, but away from Alex, is a perfect example of Angelopoulos’ stately pacing which allows room to absorb the beauty of the image and the implications of the event, and to savor the emotional richness of the moment.
Eternity and a Day has an abundance of imagery from the director’s fertile imagination. There are at least three variations on people at fences, most graphically, a shot at the Albanian border where a high wire fence is dotted with clinging would-be refugees yearning to be on the other side. There is a poet from the nineteenth century, in stovepipe hat, buying words for his poems. Ships and busses recur. One fine scene has Alex and the boy riding a bus while a parade of passengers gets on and off, including a trio of musicians who set up on the bus and play a minor key waltz. There are three people on bicycles who pedal in and out of scenes, dressed in bright yellow slickers. There is a plenitude of abandoned buildings and empty rooms.
Angelopoulos choreographs groups of people moving in an almost ritual manner: a family party on the beach, the family walking slowly over a dune as if arranged for a portrait; a street wedding in which the families of the bride and groom approach from different sides, carrying their chairs; a group of young mourners at a hospital in procession to a memorial rite.
Angelopoulos’ poet from another age purchases a collection of unrelated words and then, later in the film, has put the words together into meaningful verse. It is a statement about the work of an artist, a collector of diverse elements then molded into a coherent, beautiful whole. Eternity and a Day is the work of an artist.