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The narration of “Borders” – 3: Eternity and a day

Angelopoulos’ cinematic testament for the end of the 20th century unfolded in a trilogy, the culmination of which was a universally acclaimed achievement, honored with the highest cinematic award, the Palme d’Or of the Cannes Film Festival, by unanimous decision in 1998. It followed the often “scandalous” decision not to win the same award three years earlier with the film “The Look of Ulysses,” a film that eventually had many similar elements in its narration and subject matter, but a great difference in form.

However, the beginning of my own life started with the end of the 20th century, and my first searches in art and ideology coincided with the ideological confusion of managing the great disappointment that existed in the last decade of the past century. Moreover, the appearance of cinematic works happened in such a way that the first of all that I was able to watch was the last of the trilogy. I write this because obviously it plays a role in the way I record the interpretation of the film’s meaning, as I have received and understood it. After all, cinema is not just the image on the screen, it is the whole experience, the place, the theater, the world, the discussion before and after, all centered around the artistic work. Even the blockbuster in a cineplex is a completely different experience from the home couch and the small screen.

My experience with Angelopoulos’ “Eternity” was, therefore, cinematic from the outset. At the age of 11, in September 1998, as a student in the sixth grade and with full memories of a long trip to America the previous summer, I was in Thessaloniki for the post-summer period to see a work that had already been honored with laurels. There were very few people at the afternoon screening in the large hall at the “Olympion,” so I decided to sit somewhere alone, away from my own, to watch undistracted and “like a grown-up” a work that I de facto respected. Behind me sat a man with white curly hair and long mustaches, with the whole situation resembling those I had in mind for those decades when people struggled and won and thought and won and sang and won and captivated me as a child. For the record, the gentleman sitting behind me, as my father later told me, was Manolis Rasoulis, whom, although I didn’t know his face, I knew very well then to sing “Nothing is Lost.” As one can understand, especially in my childhood and enthusiastic eyes, all this had and will probably have forever a special significance for a film that I consider overall as my criterion for cinema.

The movie begins with a childhood figure, on a sunny day, in a sunny year before the storm of human history broke out. As we later learn, the first scene takes place in 1939, a year before the outbreak of World War II in Greece. However, that sunny past is in direct contrast with the foggy present, a few meters away, at another point of the Thessaloniki’s zoological connection with the sea, on the old beach of the city, where the sick and aged writer communicates with an unknown person through music, who responds with the same music. They don’t know each other, and he even says he chose not to know him, as he could imagine various things about the personality of that stranger. We are some of those strangers who speak through music, through movies, books, the art we love, and we are not interested in learning the face of the other, it suffices us to communicate, this feeds our days.

On his walk with his dog along the old beach, he takes a trip down memory lane, as we already know that the next day he will be admitted to the hospital due to his deadly illness. As time runs out, just as the time of a hopeful century came to an end, he thought, “The only thing I regret – is it the only thing? – is that I barely accomplished anything. Most of it, scattered words, tossed around here and there.”

In this film, when someone watches it alone, it appears as a basic introduction to the theme, to the central character’s contemplation, to the basis of his struggle with all his guilt for the life he lived. However, when one connects this content with the previous films of the trilogy, they already have some valid suspicions to think that the “words scattered here and there” are what was said by those who had a voice, the intellect, the years to be formed and in the minds of the world this new world that was being built on half the planet over unprecedented states and economies. What needed to be said about history, borders, the world itself, and its feelings.

A little further down the road, at a traffic light, the city police are chasing some of the children who escaped from the first and second borders of previous films. Without the weight of any national history or pride, they were writing a new situation in the great diary of humanity, claiming vital space in a foreign place to build their own lives. The whistles of the children on the sands of Thessaloniki in 1939 signaled the game, but at the traffic lights of Thessaloniki in 1998 they signaled the slogan for a chase, to get out of hiding without being caught, not by their parents, but by the police. Was this what the century with the great dream and cosmogonic changes had to offer?

The author pays a visit to his daughter in order to leave her the letters of her mother, without telling her about his own situation. She reads them to transport herself to another sunny era, in 1966, one year before the dictatorship, just before the storm of plaster breaks out in Greece. His daughter asks him about his work, about his obsession to finish his work on Solomos’ “Free Besieged”, to which the author, a renowned and prolific writer, answers that he “could not find the words”.

The narration is emotionally charged at every point, while also containing much greater doses of abstraction compared to the previous films. Essentially, the abstraction progressively increases from the beginning to the end of the trilogy. However, if it did not exist, perhaps the whole work would be very pedestrian and would not leave room for artistic poetry as well as the freedom to develop the examples the creator wanted.

What are these words that he couldn’t find? Are they the ones he couldn’t tell his wife, whose every letter conveyed a complaint that he didn’t give her the attention she needed? Are they the ones he didn’t tell anyone during the summer of 1966 when he was absent from the discussion on political developments? Which words did he have to find and say, where could he find them, and why couldn’t he find them? I believe that this sentence is not random in the story. As it became evident from the connection of the films, Angelopoulos does not use a script with purposeless dialogues. Each phrase that is heard has its own meaning in the plot. Otherwise, he lets the image speak for itself. Therefore, no matter how great the personal ambition was for the completion of a great work, the inability to find the words was a significant element in the inability to express himself, which made an entire life seem wasted without having been utilized to say something.

The reality of “ordinary” people who sell their abandoned past comes to cover the searches and guilt of the author. His daughter and son-in-law sold that house by the sea that was connected to all those sunny days. At the same time, in another part of the city, homeless people are exploiting the future, children who have crossed the borders to set up a business of adoptions, with their clientele being those who have created the situation that allows such businesses, the well-dressed and well-connected urban class that smells of both perfume and stench from whichever country it comes from, in whatever era it goes to.

The author saves the child from the exploitation of soul traders, common criminals who act unchecked in a state that fears immigrants and refugees but compromises with criminals. In an attempt to send the child “home,” he finds a means of transportation, a bus, in order to hear and gain a word, the first of the words he gained in the film. In the Epirotic song, the little boy says the word “my little head” to puzzle the author about where the missing words could be.

After their first unsuccessful attempt to separate, they head towards the borders, in order to pass him to the other side, from where he came to the gloomy reality of the new dream that Greece represented for all those who “violently awakened in another world.” In Florina, they arrive at the cafe that appeared in the previous two films, characterized by its mirror and bells, which refer to the scenes that unfold there. The entrance of border guards frightens the little boy who hides again. Power always scares the future.

There they decide to go together towards the border and for the first time the phrase “do you know what a poet is?” is heard. Essentially, Angelopoulos wants to tell this story here, he wants to leave his own answer to the future about what is thought, what is its role, what are the examples that can be followed, in order to follow its position in history and not to regret what it did not offer.

Before this story is heard, however, another image is given, the strongest image, perhaps the most powerful of all in the trilogy. At the borders, the people who previously seemed to be “perpetually wandering” with Greece as their destination, have now reached the line, on the wires, hanging from them like faceless figures, without names, fading away in the mist, suspended…

On the one hand, there is death, ethnic cleansing, the story that the little boy tells about soldiers who entered houses and slaughtered even crying babies, another ethnic cleansing, in a place where everyone believes in pure nations and pure races, in a place where babies are labeled because no matter how pure the race is, only human injury is the purest mark in time. Everyone wants to take that step that will take them elsewhere, to leave death behind and claim life, but they do not know if elsewhere is life or death.

The little boy explains that there is nothing behind for him to go back to, it’s not his home, even if he doesn’t know where he is, surely it’s not where his own journey started.

In the next scene, the two of them are walking next to a river. A song is heard playing in a kiosk that used to pass illegally through the river in “The Suspended Step of the Stork,” and then it was played inside the tavern the night before the wedding. There begins the reference to Solomos, essentially to the spirit that played a role, that inspired, that did not hesitate to take a stand in history.

The appearance of Solomos’ figure is captivating and Fabrizio Bentivoglio’s performance is exemplary. The author states that when Solomos learned that the enslaved Greeks had taken up arms and risen up in a revolution that had clear social characteristics, he could not rest, thus giving his answer as to what should be the essential artistic concern in the face of major social events. Solomos, thinking in Italian, wonders: “What should a poet do?” Bringing to the forefront the implication of what the film wants to say, the central theme now is purely the treatment of History by art, by the intellect, which often, in order to grasp the lofty and incorruptible, the “pure” meanings, is lost in scattered searches, and does not even find the words to express something.

The true story of Solomos is enlightening and useful for the symbolism that the creator wants to convey. The words that the poet did not know, he did not try to find them within his own thoughts, in the language he knew. He went to the people and bought them, using the words that the people used because he had to speak to the people and address them with his work. That’s how he wrote many poems, including an endless one, the “Free Besieged”.

At this point, there is a deposit of seminar cinematography, a monument by Angelopoulos. The entire scene, from the arrival of the boat with a girl who will meet the poet, to the close-up and the scene in the ruins of a church, has been filmed in a single shot, with a huge movement of the camera, for which the crew set up and removed the tracks on which the camera moved at the time. As I am not an expert, I will not write here all the technical details, but I mention it because it is a very interesting point for someone to explore, as relevant literature is available.

At the end of this epic scene, the girl symbolizing the people sells a word to the poet, with which she characterizes him. “Lightweight, tell me, what did you see last night?”. The creator doesn’t dwell only on the critique of the mentality, but instead of just pleasing ears, he launches his own attack on the current of “anti-intellectualism” that dominates uneducated masses that are swayed only by populist rhetoric and useless technocracy.

The continuation brings the story back to Thessaloniki, far from the borders, where the borders have fallen and been shattered at a wedding happening in a city that could always accommodate bastardized races and make them friends. The son of the author’s housekeeper is getting married and he goes there to leave the dog he can’t take with him. The music initially follows the bride and is a Balkan dance, while when the groom appears the tune changes to Pontian. Two different waves of refugees, immigrants, and oppressed people in one word, in the same city, with a culture that as shown by its music, doesn’t know of walls separating races, without rivers defining the absence of one part of the couple, this is the place where everyone has reached their home.

On the waterfront of Nea Paralia, where Giannis Manakis died in “Ulysses’ Gaze”, the little boy delivers a second word to the writer, the word “exile”, for someone who lived in physical or spiritual exile, in a foreign land where they couldn’t speak their language. This word shakes the writer to the core, as he starts to think that it represents him.

He remembers one of his returns, one of the passages next to the people who always waited for him and expected him to give them more than what he held in his hands for them. In the sunny summer, on the island, on a boat, the wild party with the rock ‘n’ roll of the “west” could harmoniously continue with the deposition of the soul when listening to Mauthausen, thus exculpating the repulsion of the absolute fans of the so-called militant art in the products of popular art, widespread and globally consumed.

In that scene, his wife tells him the phrase “you live your own life close to us … but not with us.” While in the next scene on the beach, he decides to leave her again to “go up”. That’s what the so-called “high intellect” wanted to do, to see the world from above, where details are erased in the whole. But not everyone who lives their lives in the world is up there, so his wife calls him a “traitor” twice, loudly. As he climbs, the contrast comes with a characteristic example of the art that went up high because it stood on the shoulders of the people, because it was heard from below, with the song heard in the background saying “Of love’s blood …”, from the “Axion Esti” of Odysseas Elytis.

The memory ends and we find ourselves again at the “point where Manakis died,” where a child was found dead. The author coincidentally meets his doctor to tell him at the end, “I have to go, they’re waiting for me.” Essentially, this introduces the motif of death and mourning, as the exact same phrase precedes the hanging man in the “Suspended Step of the Stork.” What follows is the death of Selim, but this time the mourning, instead of inarticulate cries from a world that seems retarded, is a poem by children who speak “about the ports” and “about the big world.” These children have told a new story of their own, not only to tell it, but also to live it.

Here there is a little irony, which even the creator himself wouldn’t have known when the film was made. In the scene that unfolds at the “Suspended Step of the Stork”, one of the tenants of the train holds an American flag outside his wagon in the place where the elegy takes place. In this film, the shopping center where the children are gathered is the one that was still being built on Tsimiski Street in Thessaloniki, which later housed and still houses the American consulate and bears the American flag on its facade.

The next scene finds the author visiting his sick and elderly mother. He tells her “I came to say goodbye to you”. Essentially, he is bidding farewell to a person whose age is synonymous with the time span of that century, bidding farewell to the 20th century through her, in that final hour. She still had some memories to show him, from that sunny summer of 1966.

On the beach, the first question that is heard is: “- What does the Left say, Alexandros?” to which the writer responds: “- About what?” showing his ignorance of the criticality of the political situation. The next person asks him: “How is the world from up there, Alexandros?” to get the answer: “Magical!” It was magical as they saw it, those who had lost touch with it, the years that could establish that great and true collective dream.

The return at the end of the century features a monologue deposition by the creator, of all those who made history and character, personalities linked to the Left in Europe in the second half of the 20th century: “Why did nothing come as we expected? Why must we rot helpless between pain and desire? Why did I live my life in exile? Why were the only moments I returned when I was still given the grace to speak my language? My own language. When I could rediscover forgotten words from silence. Why was it only then that I heard the echo of my footsteps at home? … Why didn’t we know how to love?” With this monologue, in addition to self-criticism, there is also a direct shot at the acceptance of the artistic work when it had to balance on a seeming neutrality, with rounded edges, in order to pass through the circles that judged its value, circles that controlled language and words, not in the sense of dialect, but in the sense of ideology.

The author meets the little boy again at the most central point of the city, where both cry for the unexpected separation, but take one last walk and get on a bus, which is one of the most abstract scenes of the film, but what appears is essentially answers to all the previous quests. The crowded bus empties at a stop that does not exist in Thessaloniki, called “Asomaton” (without bodies). A young couple enters, a stylish intellectual young man trying to pull his desire away from subculture. Along with them, an exhausted protester gets on the bus, collapsing on the red flag. The couple gets off at the next stop where those who will provide the answer to the essence of the immortal art form will enter. Three musicians play a melody that seems to come from the classical era of music. As composer Eleni Karaindrou later stated, they were playing Mozart’s “Little Night Music,” but due to copyright issues, she was forced to write a piece that matched their style and fingering. As soon as they finish, they get off at the “Odeon” stop for Solomos to recite the verses of “Lampri” symbolizing the resurrection, leaving some words to be completed…

The little one arrives at the harbor, gives the final word, “Argadini”, to the writer in the last hour, to leave for his great journey, for the big world, for the great migration that the world will make in history with the kite from the “meteoric step of the stork” and a child must finish it. The writer needs a little more time, he has found the words, he has the material, now that it’s late.

He returns to the “house by the sea”, opens the door to the past through the ruins, a past that now appears after the storm, the world dances again like in Sarajevo, in the “Ulysses’ Gaze”, “Let’s go as before” and they stop for Alexandros to come and everyone starts again, with a different background but in the same way they danced in Constantinople, a collective dance of couples. The shot empties, the author remains alone asking his wife: “- How long does tomorrow last? – An eternity and a day”, giving continuity to the history of humanity, a journey that will never end. There is time there to hear the words, those that express emotion, “korfoula mou”, those that express injustice, “xenitis”, those that express the need for history, which seems to be ending, “slowly”, to continue moving forward.

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