Greek Myths

When Theo Angelopoulos won the Palme d'Or in Cannes last year, it was clear he felt it was not before time. Angelopoulos is a film-maker renowned for taking himself seriously, but then he has just cause. Since his career began in the 1960s, he has established himself as Greece's historical and cultural conscience, with a series of films dealing in unique tableau style with modern Greek history and its dialogue with the classical past. The most ambitious of these is The Travelling Players (1975), which over nearly six hours represents the years 1939-52 as an allegorical procession. As a troupe of actors wanders through both time and landscape, their fates merge with those of classical myth, Aegisthus becoming a Nazi collaborator, Orestes a communist partisan, and so on.

It's perhaps no exaggeration to say that Angelopoulos is the most serious film-maker working today - he may even be the last great serious film-maker. His films are formally complex, dream-like and informed by myth, with an operatic grandeur; but at the same time, they're committed to a specific understanding of the present European political landscape and of Greece's place in it. His last film, the flawed but sublime Ulysses' Gaze , was not only a dialogue with Homer, but an examination of modern Balkan identity, with Harvey Keitel as a film-maker searching for the very first footage produced in the Balkans at the start of the century (the quest ends, symbolically, in the ruins of Sarajevo's cinematheque).

Angelopoulos's new film at first seems more intimate, but unfolds into something just as vast in its resonance. The Cannes prize-winner Eternity and a Day is, once again, a story about Greece, but also the account of one man's life. A bearded, saturnine Bruno Ganz, careworn in an Armani raincoat, is Alexander, a poet preparing to move out of his house and into the clinic where he will surely die. Reviewing his life, he realises that his passion for language has estranged him from his wife (who appears, played by Isabelle Renauld, as a vivid phantom presence). But his most pressing business with words remains unfinished - the translation of a key work by the 19th-century poet Solomos.

The film follows Alexander on his last day, walking around Thessaloniki and, imaginatively, through his own past. This apparently sealed existence opens up unexpectedly, first when Alexander befriends a stray young Albanian boy, and then when his experience begins to merge with that of Solomos - an exile who, estranged from his mother tongue, bought back the Greek language word by word. The resulting complex repercussions of time and memory, ending in a redemptive return to the present, make Eternity and a Day as close as a two-hour film can get to being genuinely Proustian in scope.

This is very much a film about words, but as always with Angelopoulos, everything is told in images and in music, with his regular composer Eleni Karaindrou contributing her characteristic sombre lyricism. Angelopoulos creates pictures and, above all, movements, like no other film-maker: he's a master of the elaborate tracking shot, the long, slow take, the choreography of crowds in spaces. With the cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis capturing landscape and city under a crisp, muted glaze, Angelopoulos creates a ceremonial, deliberate ballet of images. There are dizzying loops of space and time, as in an extended sequence in which the narrative slips into the 19th century to tell Solomos's story, and then imperceptibly back into the present of narration. There are simpler, more direct images, too - the camera's slow glide as it unpacks the dimensions of an empty house. The extraordinary shot of hundreds of silhouettes hanging off a fence at the snowbound Albanian border evokes an epic stillness you find only in Angelopoulos's landscapes, or in the work of a photographer such as Andreas Gursky.

During the most hallucinatory sequence, a phantasmal midnight bus ride, Bruno Ganz's face cracks in a tender smile that suddenly illuminates the whole film. It's indicative of the way Angelopoulos uses actors - not to deliver texts (the German star is, in any case, dubbed into Greek) or to provide demonstrative performances (which is why Keitel was so ill at ease in Ulysses' Gaze), but simply to be presences in the landscape. Slouching with a quizzical frown, Ganz gives the impression of a man weighed down by his memory, but who nevertheless carries it tenderly - a man attuned to the world and its sensations even while he measures his own separation from it. Ganz is a captivating, eloquent presence, his silence carrying irresistible echoes of his compassionate witnessing angel in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, and he easily makes us forget that his character is that ostensibly unsympathetic figure, a self-absorbed writer who's spent too much time alone.

As the title suggests, this is at once a huge film and a small one. It's also extremely moving despite its reserve and despite the intellectual rigour that marks its every frame. Some critics complain that Angelopoulos is a great film-maker who simply makes the same great film over and over again; if that's so, then Eternity and a Day is one of that film's most impressive manifestations, and certainly its most accessible one. It looks as much of an anachronism - if you take that to mean simply "unfashionable" - as the Odyssey itself, say, or as a volume of Holderlin, and it belongs as irreducibly to the present as they do. In its sense of reconciliation, of history coming to an end yet moving on, Eternity and a Day may have come a year too early - it would have been appropriate to think of it as the last Palme d'Or of the millennium.

© Jonathan Romney
eternity and a day
greek myths
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