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Given Theo Angelopoulos’ penchant for films that run a ruminative three or four hours, Eternity and a Day is an ominous title for one of his works. The Greek director’s latest effort, however, compresses his familiar themes into an easily manageable 132 minutes. The result, as usual, is majestic, moving, and occasionally risible.
Although many of Angelopoulos’ pictures have obtained U.S. commercial distribution, his studied meditations are not exactly Miramax material. It took more than a year after Eternity and a Day won the Golden Palm at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival for it to have its New York opening, and that came only after Merchant and Ivory signed on as sponsors. The delay seems odd, since this is the director’s most accessible film since 1988’s Landscape in the Mist, but perhaps Angelopoulos’ chronic melancholy just doesn’t fit the spirit of the late-’90s boom years.
However cheering the latest news, the times are never auspicious in an Angelopoulos film. If things aren’t bad now, the characters can always muse on when they were: World War II and the Allies’ subsequent betrayal of the Greek partisans; the totalitarian rule of the Colonels; the postwar military dictatorship; the terrors of Communism; and the disasters that followed its collapse in the nearby Balkans. Then there’s death itself, which haunts dying poet Alexandre (Bruno Ganz) as he puts his affairs in order. Trying to give his dog to his indifferent daughter (Iris Hatziantoniou), Alexandre says he’s going on a trip, but what he won’t say is that the trip is to a hospital he doesn’t expect to leave alive. Self-absorbed and unconcerned, the unnamed daughter refuses to take the dog while her husband casually mentions that the couple has sold the family beach house where Alexandre’s most cherished memories dwell.
Some of these recollections open the film, and as Alexandre travels through Thessaloniki and its environs his past is omnipresent: He sees his mother, himself as a child, his dead wife, Anna (Isabelle Renauld), as a vibrant young woman. Alas, he also sees a poet in 19th-century dress, whose presence is among Angelopoulos’ clunkier attempts at conjuring one of his customary themes, exile. Returning to Greece after a long absence, this poet realized he’d forgotten much of his mother tongue and was thus unable to finish a poem that Alexandre decided a century later to complete for him. The latter has failed, too, he realizes now, much as he—distracted by the work he now thinks insignificant—has failed to adequately express his love for his wife and daughter.
While trying to make peace with ghosts, Alexandre is thrust into current events when he rescues an 8-year-old Albanian refugee (Achilleas Skevis) from the police. The poet doesn’t intend to take responsibility for the boy, but he finds no end to his involvement. He drives the refugee to the Albanian border, where the young emigre explains why he fled. The story is chillingly underscored when one of the director’s trademark slow pans reveals the horrors waiting on the other side of the fence dividing Greece from Albania.
This eerie scene, one of the film’s most striking, is Angelopoulos at his best, but it is unlikely to impress fans of quick cuts and frenzied handheld camerawork. The director’s work is nothing if not stately, and his taste for pageantry can seem fussy and old-fashioned. Angelopoulos’ movies often feature traveling theater groups and frequently invoke the spirit of classical Greek drama and myth. (Alexandre, presumably named for the Greek conqueror, follows previous protagonists called Ulysses and Orestes.) Eternity and a Day includes no literal theater, but it does stage a stylized peasant wedding, a melodramatic Lost Boys’ memorial service, and—in the director’s most egregious misstep—a trip on a vehicle that can only be called the Bus of Life: As Alexandre and the Albanian ride, they’re joined by such emblematic passengers as a leftist demonstrator, squabbling young lovers, a chamber-music trio, and, finally, that damned 19th-century poet again.
Despite such awkwardness, this is actually one of Angelopoulos’ less stilted works. As Alexandre, the graybearded Ganz is merely a somber presence, but he’s more credible than Harvey Keitel, the star of the director’s 1995 film Ulysses’ Gaze. And, although the dispossessed urchin has become a commonplace figure in recent foreign films, Skevis provides some youthful vitality amid the methodical tracking shots, deliberate pans, and leisurely zooms.
Angelopoulos has said that Eternity and a Day was inspired by the death of actor Gian Maria Volonte during the shooting of Ulysses’ Gaze; the actor originally intended to play Alexandre, Marcello Mastroianni, also died before the project began. The director himself is 64—which might inspire thoughts of mortality, except that he’s always had such thoughts. Oppressed by history, Angelopoulos has contemplated the end for decades. Artistically, however, that turbulent history delivers him. Whenever his gloom becomes too self-indulgent or his symbolism too blatant, the director can turn to the ready-made tragedies of 20th-century life along the Adriatic. Angelopoulos’ gestures may be overstated, but his anguish is never unearned.
Every Angelopoulos film is of a piece, but each Stephen Soderbergh one is different. Following the success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, the director’s career has been both commercially and artistically underwhelming, but he can’t be faulted for repeating a formula. He’s toyed with German expressionism (Kafka), American naturalism (King of the Hill), and a style once deemed “sci-fi noir” (The Underneath). Now he’s made a British New Wave thriller, complete with flashbacks taken from an actual 1967 U.K. film.
In summary, The Limey sounds a lot like Soderbergh’s previous film, the frisky (if widely overrated) Out of Sight. Both feature charismatic felons who are forced, against their worse nature, to demonstrate their humanity. The new movie, however, is ultimately less of a lark, darkened as it is by a father’s realization that he has failed his daughter.
The young woman’s name is Jenny, and she is already dead when her hard-boiled dad arrives in L.A. Wincingly aware that he missed much of Jenny’s life while he was in prison, Wilson (Terence Stamp) has traveled to California to make amends as best he can. That means discovering who’s responsible for Jenny’s death and probably killing him. As the Who explain for Wilson in the opening sequence, “I’m a desperate man.”
The name of the song that provides this news is “The Seeker,” an account of Pete Townshend’s early-’70s spiritual questing. Not a gangster anthem, perhaps, but The Limey was written for Stamp, and it builds on his past in knowing ways. A ’60s icon, Stamp retreated to an Indian ashram for much of the ’70s—which makes “The Seeker” an apt choice for the soundtrack. Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs (who also scripted Kafka) further blend character with actor by using clips from Ken Loach’s 1967 Poor Cow, in which Stamp plays a thief, as flashbacks to Wilson’s ill-spent young adulthood.
Wilson’s nemesis turns out to be washed-up ’60s record producer Terry Valentine, played by Peter Fonda, in another casting coup. It’s only logical to associate Valentine with Columbia staff producer (and Charles Manson pal) Terry Melcher, especially when one of the bands the latter produced, the Byrds, appears on the soundtrack with a 1966 rarity, “It Happens Each Day.” (Melcher didn’t supervise that track, but he did produce the Byrds’ “The Ballad of Easy Rider,” the theme song to Fonda’s breakthrough film.) Like Stamp and Fonda until their recent restorations, Valentine is living an afterlife of his hippie-era renown, but a dwindling fortune—his first appearance is cued to the Hollies’ “King Midas in Reverse”—has led him to desperate alliances.
That’s a surfeit of interesting background texture for a movie whose foreground, unfortunately, is mostly routine. As an older man who talks in pointlessly ostentatious Cockney rhyming slang, Wilson is consistently underestimated by Terry’s security guards and thuggish allies. But there’s never any doubt that he’ll achieve his revenge.
Eliminate the inside jokes and playful asides—at one point, Valentine watches an Access Hollywood report on Out of Sight star George Clooney—and what’s left is rather thin. Soderbergh’s use of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and jump cuts is confident but counterproductive. Whereas New Wave films like Breathless employ jump cuts to create a headlong rush, here they actually slow things down. That may be just as well, because the movie has more backstory than story. Despite all the historical signifiers, in essence The Limey is a merely functional noir. Soderbergh and Dobbs know the ’60s inside and out, but they never get far enough inside their characters to illuminate this ’90s requiem to the era and its latter-day collateral damage. CP