What are we to do when we are told to die? Implying that we do not know we will is folly, for it is our time to bow out at some point. We don’t know when. That’s the safety net. Eternity and a Day rips away the unspoken rule of not thinking about our demise when a man confronts his mortality and is thrust into a ticking few days. He must do what fulfils him in that time, but how can he when his head is flowing with the fear of fizzling out into nothingness? Either that, or it could be the complete opposite reaction. He may be comforted by the idea that he has not got long to live. His priorities are scattered, the plans and payments made for the future do not matter one iota. Surely that is quite freeing? Director Theo Angelopoulos follows both avenues of thought well in Eternity and a Day.
Fear grips us all, but not as tightly as death. When that fear lets slip, it is the brief release before the inevitable that finds its way into the heart and mind of people preparing to die. Alexandros (Bruno Ganz) is one such man. The effect this has on him is consistently shown with aching beauty. Angelopoulos has a keen desire to showcase a man living out his final days with as much simplicity as possible. True to this notion, the world around Alexandros moves on as it should. Cars bustle down busy streets, there are chance encounters with a young car cleaner, an immigrant from Albania, but between these sudden moments is a man living out the last few days with a general mundane nature. He shops, visits friends, and makes his peace with the idea that life will leave him soon enough.
Much of that is captured and presented with beauty and scope from Ganz. A magnificent portrayal of how it must feel to find meaning in the closing moments, Alexandros has nothing weighing him down and acts on impulse. He chases down the immigrants and tries to help them. Would a man with a busy schedule and a bustling social life worth living do so? No, I doubt they would. But it is that lack of living Alexandros is stuck with that allows him, ironically, to do the things most moralising and righteous. He acts without reason or influence on his surroundings, but his spark of good brings life to those around him and those he saves, a life he knows he cannot have. Therein lies the beauty of Eternity and a Day, we follow a man close to death, bringing life to others. I can think of no better performer to present that than Ganz.
Alexandros travels through heaven and hell to return a boy to a family he may or may not have. His pit stops in purgatory and the sandwiches they eat at the pop-up vans. “What can a poet do?” is the question posed to these characters. Well, what can he do? Nothing. Despite spouting beautiful dialogue and having the answer to all the hard-hitting questions of life, they are no different from you or me. Alexandros flutters through life and begins piecing together acts of charity and praise-worthy deeds, but there is the sense that it is too late. There he is on the yacht, surrounded by people adorned in nothing but white. He still wears the scruffy clothes, the black and grey combination that still sees him linked to the living. How long for, though? Has he already passed on in these moments as is making peace with the life around him? It isn’t hard to tell, but it is harder still to accept that it will happen to us.