HE'D SEEN HIS THOUSANDTH SMALL BOY and was in despair. Theo Angelopoulos, the Greek film director best known in this country for Ulysses' Gaze (1995), was trying to cast the role of a young Albanian refugee in his new film, Eternity and a Day, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year and opens in the U.S. this week. Whatever boy he found would have to hold his own against Bruno Ganz in the role of a dying poet who takes the orphan under his wing. “Find me another Jackie Coogan,” Angelopolous told his assistants.

This jaunty reference to the pintsize co-star of Chaplin's The Kid says a lot about Angelopoulos. Coogan, as the little pickpocket who also excelled at stealing hearts, remains one of the most luminous children the movies have ever discovered — find another of him, and you can phone in the rest of the film. A lesser filmmaker might be tempted to do just that. But Angelopoulos (who began his career as a film critic) has repeatedly shown himself to be a painstaking master of the whole environment of a film. Actors are its heart, but the lifeblood of his work is felt in the immense, breathtaking, weightless movements of his camera. I doubt there were more than 50 shots in the whole of Ulysses' Gaze, which explored the Balkan crisis through the eyes of a Greek filmmaker (Harvey Keitel) making his way from Greece through a bloodied dreamscape to Sarajevo. In the films for which he's best known in Europe, The Traveling Players (1975), Voyage to Kythera (1984) and Landscape in the Mist (1988), Angelopoulos' expansive style compels us to view even the most intimate human movements in relation to the world of borders, wars, unseen authorities.

Eternity and a Day, prophetically, has the Albanian crisis in its background, but the director prefers to concentrate on the story of the poet and the boy. The film was provoked by the sudden death of veteran Italian actor Gian Maria Volonte during the making of Ulysses' Gaze. Volonte's death inspired the dilemma of the poet-hero played by Ganz, and lit the way to a bold interpretation. “In the script, his symptoms were set forth with precision,” Angelopoulos recalls. But in pre-production, he adds, “I began removing signposts. The illness became more of a metaphor. Bruno asked, 'Should I go to a hospital and watch people who are terminally ill?' I said, 'No — let's do away with external signs. Let it be more of an interior affair. Behave as though nothing is happening — put in a few cracks, to remind everyone, but don't underline it.” This gives the poet's delicate physical demeanor an undertow of strength, a grip on life that endows his last day (despite moments of plangent melancholy) with the upbeat vigor of a hero's journey.

Angelopoulos knew he'd found his Coogan before young newcomer Achileas Skevis even opened his mouth. Skevis has the gravity of a little adult, visibly guarding his child's heart like a treasure. “He and Bruno had no language in common except the language of eyes,” says Angelopoulos. Their bond is so potent that Eternity and a Day might well turn out to be a popular success in this country. That would be a first for the director, and it would be high time. In the absence of such giants as Tarkovsky, Kieslowski and Kurosawa, and given the silence of such elders as Bresson and Antonioni, Angelopoulos in his midlife prime is the last master left standing, a deliverer of symphonic, elliptical challenges that defy video and should rightly be discovered on the big screen. “I'd like more of an audience in America,” Angelopoulos admits. “Not so much for financial reasons, but because I feel as Borges did when they asked him why he wrote: 'I write for me and for my friends, who could be one, 10, a million or 10 million.'”


See New Releases in the film calendar listings for a review of Eternity and a Day.

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