Eternity and a Day (1998)

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Famous writer Alexander is very ill and has little time left to live. He meets a little boy on the street, who is an illegal immigrant from Albania, and goes on a journey with him to take the boy home (from a synopsis in IMDb)… On one of the special sessions of the weekly IASR seminar, we got together to watch the film Eternity and a Day (1998) by the Greek director Theodoros Angelopoulos. The idea was to provide a platform, on the one hand, for some reflections on Greece, and on the other hand, for interdisciplinary discussion on whichever universal themes come to the fore in the film.

Theodoros Angelopoulos’s Cannes winner Eternity and a Day (1998) is a film allowing us to revisit Greece, its myths, beauty and the complicated present — or the present such as it was experienced in the 1990s. Absorbing streams of illegal immigrants from the Balkans, fighting a depression to have been but one among many to have struck Greece, Angelopoulos’s enigmatic work depicts a country right before the turn of the Millennium, searching for its identity through poetic means, with some help from classical Greek literature. At the same time, this is a meditative and minimalistic addition to the tradition of European art films, whereby Eternity and a Day can be seen to engage universal themes of human existence.

On a shared viewing, we found that Eternity and a Day is a film about being an outsider, not only in relation to others but also within one’s own life and one’s own vocation. The protagonist of the film is an aging poet, Alexander (Bruno Ganz) who seems to struggle to find meaning in his own poetry, which for the most remains unfinished. He’s working on a poem “The Free Besieged” by a Greek poet from the 19th century, which suggests an allusion to Dionysios Solomos (1798–1857), the Greek national poet. Alexander, indeed, turns out to be a doppelgänger of Dionysios, since he mourns— in line with the historical fate of Solomos — having been estranged in his own language. (Dionysios spent large parts of his life in Italy and also wrpte poetry in Italian, alongside Greek, and he never finished his key poems, including “The Free Besieged”, which deals with the Greek War of Independence.)

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In a minimalistic movie such as Eternity and a Day everything happens slowly and gradually, so little details and nuances are of foremost importance. Take, for example, the two scenes where (illegal) immigrants climb on high fences; the first one takes place at the border between Greece and Albania; the second one occurs when Alexander’s daughter is celebrating her wedding. On both occasions, groups of immigrants climb on the fences, in order to see better to the other side. But on neither occasion do the climbers reach across the fence; the foreigners are barred, as it were, from full participation in what’s taking place on the other side.

Speaking of doublings, it may be noted how mirroring relationships in the film are not confined to doppelgängers or reoccurring scenes, but extend themselves into dialogue and dramaturgic detail. As one of our fellows, Jukka Tyrkkö eruditely observed, Alexander gains initial contact with the unnamed immigrant boy by offering him a sandwich, after what seems like the boy’s desperate attempt to run away following his unwillingness to return for Albania. Following this scene, it is the boy, in turn, who asks whether Alexander has had anything to eat — and the doubling becomes a tripling, when Alexander, a couple of scenes later leaves his dog to the housemaid Urania saying that the dog is hungry. Thus are chains of reciprocal recognition created…

On a psychological level, Eternity and Day is a film about dreaming and remembering: its memories are woven from the fabric of Alexander’s life, while its dreams reach to the imagination of the Albanian boy. In the beginning of the film, the little boy has no past to recall — at least he has hardly any expression on his face. As his relationship with Alexander deepens, however, both of them regain the ability to mourn, and the Albanian grieves the death of his friend Selim. Moreover, when the unlikely friends separate from each other at the end of the film, a ship sails away from the port — carrying onboard the boy who’s been taught by Alexander to dream of seeing seaports on his journey.

Following Theodor W. Adorno, it is memory that is needed for us — both as human beings and as a nation — to come to ourselves, and without memory, indeed, we fall to melancholia and never begin the proper grieving work. This idea seems to fit the texture of Eternity and a Day as well, for it is the memories that bring both the protagonist and his juvenile friend to life. With the film’s tint of melancholic existentialism, however, is mixed a Mediterranean element of joy and friendship (as Risto Heiskala noted in good spirit), without which Alexander’s and the Albanian boy’s intimate relationship would perhaps never come into being.

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