Top positive review
"Why were we never able to love?"
on 25 April 2016
ETERNITY AND A DAY (Mia aioniothta kai mia mera)
(Greece/France/Italy, 1998, 127 minutes, Colour, aspect ratio: 16:9)
Just as Angelopoulos followed an interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey in Voyage to Cythera with a deeply interior meditation on old age, the death of Greek culture, the decline of rural communities and Greece’s consequent slide into obsolescence in The Beekeeper, so Angelopoulos follows his somewhat grander Homer-inspired odyssey Ulysses’ Gaze with another interior meditation on very similar themes. The concluding part of his Trilogy of Borders, Eternity and a Day is the story of how a terminally ill old poet named Alexander (Bruno Ganz) spends the last 24 hours before he checks into a hospital to die. He reminisces back over his life to his childhood and his marriage where his life’s commitment to his work has precluded love. In one of his memories he asks his hospitalized mother, ‘why were we never able to love?’ Angelopoulos referred to The Beekeeper as ‘The Silence of Love’ and the same applies here though the situation is not as hopeless. In the course of the day Alexander does find a meaning to his life by helping an Albanian illegal immigrant boy (Achilleas Skevis). He rescues him twice, tries to repatriate him and eventually helps him onto a ship to begin ‘his voyage of life’ away from Greece. Alexander returns to his Thessalonika home aware of his imminent death, but somehow his spirit has been reconciled by the day’s events (especially a fantastic bus ride taken with the boy in the middle of the night) and he looks forward to a tomorrow which will last ‘an eternity and a day’ as he imagines his wife (Isabelle Renauld) telling him while he stares out to sea.
With the main characters of The Beekeeper and Eternity and a Day Angelopoulos creates two metaphors for a sick Greece. The name Alexander is important in itself, the director having already made a complex allegory on Greek history in Alexander the Great where the name became an earlier metaphor for the country. In that film the great emperor was reborn twice as the Greek freedom fighter Theodoros (‘Alexander’) Kolokotronis during the War for Independence (1821-29) and then as a rebel leader who kidnaps foreign aristocrats in 1900. In this film another Alexander signifies the rebirth of the great 19th century national poet Dionysios Solomos who wrote Hymn to Liberty, the words of which are used today in the Greek national anthem. Significant for this film is that Solomos had been living in Italy and returned to the fight as an emigrant in the War for Independence against the Ottomans. This parallels Alexander’s own left wing past and his involvement in the Greek Civil War (1946-49). Also, Solomos had lived abroad so long that he had forgotten Greek and had to ‘buy’ new words from people who lived on his native island of Zakynthos which were later used in the national anthem. In this film, Alexander also buys words from the Albanian boy to continue his final work. The three words he buys are ‘korfulamu’ (a comforting word for the heart of a flower), ‘xenitis’ (the feeling of being an outsider everywhere) and ‘argathini’ (meaning ‘late at night’). These words are as relevant to the dying poet as they are to Greece and its dying culture and they are repeated endlessly by Alexander at the film’s conclusion.
Alexander has dedicated himself to completing Solomos’s greatest poem, The Besieged Free which is about the third siege of Missolonghi (1826), an important event during the war. The main theme of the work is willpower in the struggle for survival. It is precisely Alexander’s (and Greece’s) need for willpower that is Angelopoulos’s main theme in this film. The need is laid out in simple terms beginning with Alexander having to find a new home for his dog. His search reveals a deep generation rift, first between him and his daughter (Iris Hatziantoniou) who he hasn’t told about his illness and her cold husband who won’t allow animals inside their apartment. Callously, they have already sold the beloved family home and the father is visably shaken by the news. Then there is a wider generation rift as shown when he interrupts wedding celebrations to ask his housekeeper Urania (Eleni Gerasimidou) to take his dog. The intrusion underlines the obsolescence of the old in the world of the young. He is no longer wanted or needed despite Urania’s offer to accompany him to the hospital. His dog taken care of and his Thessalonika home sold, he becomes the archetypical Angelopoulos stranger homeless in his homeland. There is nothing left for him to do except die along with the rest of his generation in Greece, a man and a country in terminal decline.
The Beekeeper was completely bleak on this point, but there is hope in Eternity and a Day with the will to survive for Alexander and Greece coming from three sources. The first is the cherishing (or even the creation) of one’s happiest memories. In Alexander’s case it is his childhood and his long-dead wife. In the film this is shown through several glorious flashbacks which show him as an old man revisiting (and reimagining) events – a boat trip, the birth of his daughter, a thunderstorm, dances and parties on the beach. The second is his recognition of Greece’s rich cultural heritage which, once realized, enriches life beyond all imagining. This is shown by scenes of Solomos (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) reciting his own poems. We know Alexander’s absorption in his work has compromised his personal relationships, but the cherishing of artistic heritage is still an important thing for both himself and for Greece. The third is his resolution to confront the contemporary problem of immigration and help the Albanian boy. Focusing on these three sources of willpower, Alexander (and Greece) is given new vigor and the film ends on a positive note.
The last source comes into greatest focus in the film. Immigration and the multitude of clashing ethnic cultures co-existing in the Balkan region amounted to the biggest problem facing Greece in the 1990s, the fall-out of the Bosnian War being far-reaching. Angelopoulos shows the problem should be dealt with by authorities through spiritual understanding rather than Fascistic enforcement of law and order. Alexander first meets the boy when he rescues him from a police charge on the streets. The police operate double standards, picking up vagrant immigrants while allowing sinister street gangs to do their job for them through human-trafficking. Authority is something to be feared rather than to be respected as the boy retreats from every uniform in sight and the Albanian border is depicted as a horrific death zone with numerous bodies impaled on barbed wire. If the boy’s homeland is a Nazi death camp surely the Greek authorities should deal with its immigration-induced problems with greater sensitivity. Angelopoulos’s Greece is always a harsh, unforgiving place and through Alexander’s actions he is showing the authorities how illegal immigration should be dealt with. This cry for a greater spiritual understanding in the Balkans ties the film very closely to the previous two films of the Trilogy.
Visually, the film is a treat. Angelopoulos and Arvanitis/Sinanos conjur up extraordinary long sequence shots which transcend time and place with copious use of tracking (both forwards and backwards) and slow zooms. Focusing mainly on the relationship between the old man and the boy, the use of Brechtian tableaux is muted with only one tour-de-force sequence towards the end as our two main protagonists take a bus ride. The bus is obviously a studio set. Angelopoulos deliberately exaggerates the artificiality by making it bigger and keeping it stationary while it is supposed to be moving down rainy streets. Onto the bus come figures from Alexander’s past – himself as a left wing protester who falls asleep carrying a huge red flag, himself as a student having an argument with his girlfriend (possibly his future wife), Solomos in 19th century black cape and top hat reciting the poetry which Alexander has spent his life completing, and then an unlikely trio of classical musicians whose music the two enjoy as they share the happiest moments of the whole film. Bruno Ganz puts in a wonderful performance here even if his voice is dubbed. His (and Greece’s) plight is given extraordinary resonance by Angelopoulos’s gift for capturing mood, memory and nostalgia, fusing dream with reality to astonishing poetic effect. Then another beautiful Eleni Karaindrou musical score ensures the film resonates strongly long after it finishes. It’s a hugely impressive profoundly personal work which effortlessly reaches out to broader themes and concerns. It thoroughly deserved the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1998.