Winner of the Palme d'Or the director's second at last year's Cannes Film Festival, and presumably that kind of cerebral filmmaking that Miramax's Harvey Weinstein derided while holding court at this year's event, Theo Angelopoulos' Eternity and a Day is the story of an epic emotional journey through time and history, a journey that takes place largely within the memory of its protagonist, a solitary intellectual (like many other Angelopoulos heroes) facing his own mortality.
Alexandre, Angelopoulos' latest intellectual Odysseus, is a terminally ill literary figure facing what he believes will be his final hospital stay. As he prepares to leave, he recalls his late wife and begins to doubt whether he has ever appreciated his life, whether his pursuit of knowledge prevented him from recognizing the happiness that was within his grasp. As played by Bruno Ganz, the intense star of New German Cinema classics like The American Friend, looking like he's spent much of the last two decades carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, Alexandre is a sad figure, yet he retains a sense that the world still offers the promise of hope.
His chance to act on that promise comes when, making his final farewell to his daughter, he sees a small Albanian boy being kidnapped. After rescuing the boy (the unaffected Achileas Skevis) from a child-smuggling ring, Alexandre decides to spend his final days seeing the boy safely home, the youth's state of exile drawing comparison to his own self-imposed isolation from the world. As his travels with the child magically intersect with his journey into his own past, the old man finds a kind of contentment, a tranquil acceptance of fate.
Those familiar with Angelopoulos' work might think that the director is repeating himself, that aside from the addition of the child, he's walking over the paths of time and memory that he's made before. (Angelopoulos' last film, Ulysses' Gaze, followed another lonely figure, film director Harvey Keitel, as he wandered through Balkan history.) The criticism is valid yet beside the point. Eternity and a Day is very much of a piece with his other films (though its running time of 132 minutes is modest compared to the director's usual epic lengths), and his visual style long tracking shots that cross temporal and narrative barriers, subdued colors embellished by almost dreamlike detail is as poetically seductive as ever. Like his characters, Angelopoulos returns to the same themes again and again not as a matter of convenience but because they continue to haunt him, always raising new questions. Alexandre's journey toward death is as timeless as that of his Homeric counterpart; between his faith in the future of his young traveling partner and his despair over his own lost time, he makes it a unique one as well.
Plays at 8 p.m. July 30-Aug. 1 at Webster University.