Friends member Rob Baker reviews Eternity and a Day which screened recently as part of a small season of films in conjunction with Amnesty International Leeds.
After Arrival (2016) we have another film playing with concepts of time. Eternity and a Day (1998) is the second of three screenings at the Picture House organised by the local Amnesty group’s Refugee and Asylum Seeker Sub-Group.
Alexander (Bruno Ganz) is an aging Greek poet who believes he is facing his last day on earth. An unnamed medical intervention is planned for the next day, and he does not expect to recover – we almost get an impression of voluntary euthanasia. He starts the day trying to find a home for the dog he knows he must leave behind.
Alexander time-shifts through the day, re-living encounters with his parents (only his ailing mother now survives), his young wife (deceased), and his daughter both as a child and grown up (bringing us to current time). With the exception of a couple of scenes showing him as a child, playing on the beach with other children, with his Mother off-screen calling him to come in for dinner, Alexander appears in most of these scenes as his current late middle-aged self. We are even taken back to the mid 19th century with the appearance aboard a Thessaloniki night-bus of a long dead poet, whose key unfinished work Alexander has set himself the task of finishing, though of course he hasn’t – “Nothing is finished” he laments.
Powerful symbols of “passing on” intrude on the scene, with buses and ships, even a trio of cyclists in yellow oilskins, hoving into view behind the protagonists. The constant leitmotif of the film is the Aegean shoreline where nearly all the family encounters of the past and present play out. The sea, the final frontier for us all to cross, sparkles in the sunshine.
All this provides the setting for Alexander’s chance meeting with a young Albanian boy of Greek heritage, during a time when Albania’s Greek ethnic minority were persecuted, disenfranchised and denied an education in their own language so that many fled across the border to Greece. The boy is entangled in the dangerous petty criminal activities of a gang of similarly displaced boys. On a whim Alexander, whose car windscreen the boy has just been cleaning, rescues him from pursuit by the police.
Very slowly a friendship develops between the two. The boy begins by mutely accepting the support of this elderly stranger but from time to time he recognises the selflessness of the poet’s concern and a gloriously toothy smile flashes across his face, echoing the smile of Damiel, the angel, in the circus scene of Wings of Desire (1987) 11 years earlier. Fans of Bruno Ganz may notice other filmic references, such as Alexander’s trenchcoat, poignantly reminiscent of the one worn by Damiel as recording angel.
Refugee issues in the film focus on the dangers faced by unaccompanied children, not least the human traffickers seen kidnapping and selling children to wealthy couples, and the alternative risks of returning to the country they have fled, symbolised by the human bodies we see pinned, like specimen moths, to the boundary fence, when the boy approaches the border with a view to returning. Are they alive or dead? I thought I saw one start to climb down from the fence – but the gruesome prospect is enough for the boy to turn back and continue his life with Alexander.
By the end of the film Alexander’s own growing understanding of the precarious beauty of life, is enough for him to cancel his operation and live on.