Directed by Theo Angelopoulos
On the few blessed days when I have no obligations or plans, my bedroom becomes my palace and my bed my throne. Even after I wake up in the morning, I silently stare at the empty ceiling, filling it with images plucked from my memory. Slowly, the white expanse is traded with a black one as my eyes fold closed, intensifying the visions. Memories dance in my head until they become sloshed together, combined into a succinct mishmash of remembrances and reminiscences. At this point, I usually fall back asleep for another hour or so, letting my memories become the playground of my subconscious. As memories turn to dreams, the fine line between reality and fantasy becomes blurred. In these precious moments, I feel truly content.
Countless directors have tried to duplicate the hypnotic waltz of memory. Films like Mulholland Drive (2001) take pleasure in exploring the twisted and bizarre mindscapes of troubled minds. Others films like Rashomon (1950) seek out the nature of memory itself. But while they contain different agendas, each of these films attempts to reconstruct instances of memory within a larger narrative framework. Their plots usually take place in the present and are accompanied with flashbacks. Some films, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), present events out of chronological order. But still, the film differentiates between past and present with surgical precision. As with other films, there has to be a frame of reference for the audience to familiarize themselves with.
So imagine my surprise when I viewed Theo Angelopoulos’ Eternity and a Day. Here was a film that defied traditional cinematic language and logic for memories and created something resembling a mindscape where the characters escape to. Here, there is no difference between past and present, memories and reality.
We follow Alexander, an old man experiencing the twilight of his life in a seaside apartment in Thessaloniki. When we first meet him, we learn that he has a terminal illness and is ordered to return to the hospital the next day for a special test. The film carefully charts the next 24 hours of his life. Realizing that time is short, he goes about trying to resolve his affairs. He tries to find a new owner for his dog. He visits his thirty-something daughter in order to give her some letters written by his dead wife. Before he can share the news of his condition, he learns that she has sold his seaside apartment to be demolished the very next day without telling him. In a sense, he has already died. After all, we learn that he has lost the joy in his life. Once a famous poet, he has languished in a self-imposed exile that has cut him off from the world. Early in the film, we learn that Alexander’s only real friend is a next door neighbor that he has never seen or met. Their only form of correspondence is to play music to each other through their open windows.
As he wonders the streets of Thessaloniki, he relives old memories of better times. There are scenes with his dead wife, daughter, and mother. These scenes are played out of chronological order, as if to suggest that we are seeing them as Alexander thinks of them. The film literally becomes a projection of Alexander’s inner thoughts and memories. But remember how I said that it wasn’t like other films that dwelt on memory? Well, let me explain.
Angelopoulos, infamous for long, slow films, constructs Eternity and a Day with long takes. The average shot comes in at least one minute long and can last for up to several. During the duration of the shot, the camera either slowly zooms in and out or pans left or right. The camera is always a tiny bit higher than the characters, making it feel like the viewers are floating through Alexander’s life. There are no transitions to shots from another time period. Instead, Angelopoulos will pan his camera to reveal a character from another era (occasionally in period dress) standing right next to Alexander. They begin to reenact Alexander’s memories with his old self filling in for his younger self. When the scene is finished, one of three things happens. One, the character walks out of frame, immediately returning Alexander to the present. Two, the camera pans or zooms in a way that pushes them off the screen. Three, Angelopoulos cuts to another scene. In this way Angelopoulos constructs a world that is simultaneously based in reality and completely fabricated from Alexander’s memories.
In his last day, Alexander does not wonder through his thoughts alone. Near the start of the film he rescues a young homeless boy making a living on the streets washing car windows. It is revealed that the young boy, who largely remains a silent enigma, is part of a larger group of street orphans who are preyed upon by the police and kidnappers who sell them into lives of sexual slavery. The boy, an Albanian by birth, is trying to leave Greece. In the film’s most iconic scene, Alexander and the boy approach the border only to find it surrounded by a massive barbed wire fence. Mounted on the other side of the fence are the bodies of Albanians trying to escape into Greece. Angelopoulos exercises wise restraint by keeping the fence in the background of the scene with Alexander and the boy occupying the foreground. As a result, the bodies take on the form of dead silhouettes mounted like trophies. As a gate opens and a guard approaches them, the boy screams that he was lying about his life in Albania and wants to leave.
As the day wanes into night, an unlikely friendship develops between Alexander and the boy. Even though he barely speaks, Alexander develops a strong attachment to the boy. In one scene where the boy tries to leave, Alexander wails for the boy not to leave him. In a sense, the boy becomes the devoted son that Alexander never had. Slowly, the boy brings Alexander out of his stupor and he grows a fresh taste for life.
But Alexander knows that he is in no condition to take care of the boy. In a devastating scene, Alexander sends the boy off on a boat headed for an unknown investigation. It is more than just the departure of a friend for Alexander; it is the departure of what has grown into part of his soul. The film ends on a sunny day on the beach with his dead wife. I won’t reveal the ending. It is too much of a strange enigma, the kind that everyone will have a different opinion on. Suffice to say, it brings up the question of whether or not the scene is real. In fact…it could be argued that it casts a doubt about whether or not the film actually took place. Could it be that the film has been nothing more than a hallucination experienced by an ailing man? You decide.
A film of stark, restrained power, Eternity and a Day is not so much about memories as it is a memory in of itself. As Alexander wonders the streets of his Greek home, he wonders the boulevards of his own inner turmoil and remembrances. The young boy is a beacon of hope for the poor man, but like all things, he too must pass. But for what little time he has left, his memory will live on in Alexander’s mind…just like the film will live on in my own.