Sunset in Thessaloniki ... the location for the 1998 film Eternity And A Day (Μια αιωνιότητα και μια μέρα) by Theodoros Angelopoulos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
Tomorrow is Easter Day in the calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church, and so for my last Poem for Easter this year I have chosen the poem <Η ημέρα της Λαμπρής> (‘The Easter Day’) by Greece’s National poet, Dionysios Solomos (1798-1857).
This poem regained fame and popularity in Greece some years ago with the 1998 film Eternity And A Day (Μια αιωνιότητα και μια μέρα) by Theodoros Angelopoulos, who died earlier this year (24 January 2012).
Alexandros (Bruno Ganz) walks along the seafront in Thessaloniki in Eternity And A Day
The film tells the story of Alexandros (Bruno Ganz), a poet in Thessaloniki with a terminal illness who is spending his last day getting his affairs in order before checking himself into a hospital. He lives in his old seaside family home near Thessaloniki, but his daughter Katerina (Iris Chatziantoniou) and her lover Nikos (Vassilis Seimenis) plan to sell the house.
Alexandros thinks if he checks himself into the hospital, he shall die. But he has one final project – to complete the unfinished poem, ‘The Free Besieged,’ by Dionysios Solomos. He recalls his dead wife, Anna (Isabelle Renauld), and he lets his daughter read a letter her mother had written to him right after her birth in 1966.
Later in the day, he saves a young boy (played by Achilleas Skevis), a Greek-speaking illegal immigrant from Albania, first from police in traffic in Thessaloniki and later from child kidnappers in a warehouse, and tries to help the boy return home. In one eerie scene, with recollections of the Crucifixion, man and boy are at the snowy mountain border between Greece and Albania, where a barbed wire fence has the bodies of fleeing refugees clinging to it after being killed by border police.
In one scene, Alexandros and the boy, who remains unnamed throughout the film, are on a bus journey when they come across the poet Solomos (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), who recites verses from this poem <Η ημέρα της Λαμπρής> (‘The Easter Day’), with the opening line: «Καθαρότατον ήλιο επρομηνούσε ...»
Solomos (1798-1857) was born on the Greek island of Zakynthos, to an elderly count and his teenaged housekeeper. Solomos was educated in Italy, where he studied law and literature, but on returning to Greece he relearned Greek, and decided to write in demotic, or common modern, Greek. He gained fame early on with his ‘Hymn to Liberty’ (1823), a 158‐quatrain poem – the first two stanzas are sung as the Greek national anthem.
However, Solomos became more and more obsessed with perfection and he left many poems unfinished, including ‘The Free Besieged.’
The ‘White Tower’ ... the symbol of Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
During the bus journey the dying Alexandros and the boy take through Thessaloniki, the poet Solomos gets on the bus. He sits across from Alexandros and the boy, and recites his unfinished poem, ‘The Easter Day.’ When Solomos gets to the unfinished last line of the poem, “Sweet is the life ... and, ...” he repeats these first few words and is unable to complete the line. As he leaves the bus, Alexandros asks: “Tomorrow, how long does it last?”
Close to the end of the film, the dying Alexandros imagines he has met Anna once again, and he says to her: “One day, I had asked you, how long does tomorrow last?” Anna answers: “An eternity and a day.” She leaves, and Alexander is left alone, facing the sea.
This is a story of love, regret, life and memory, light and darkness, hope and despair and ultimately, life and death. It is about death and new life, about a dying man who gives his life to save a child all others regard as useless, about captivity and redemption, about hope in tomorrow, faith in the future, and truths about time and eternity.
Eternity and a Day ... a story of love, regret, life and memory, light and darkness, hope and despair and life and death
Η ημέρα της Λαμπρής, ∆ιονυσιος Σολωμος
Καθαρότατον ήλιο επρομηνούσε
της αυγής το δροσάτο ύστερο αστέρι,
σύγνεφο, καταχνιά, δεν απερνούσε
τ' ουρανού σε κανένα από τα μέρη,
και από εκεί κινημένο αργοφυσούσε
τόσο γλυκό στο πρόσωπο τ' αέρι,
που λες και λέει μες της καρδιάς τα φύλλα
«γλυκειά η ζωή κι ο θάνατος μαυρίλα».
Χριστός ανέστη! Νέοι, γέροι και κόραις
όλοι, μικροί, μεγάλοι ετοιμασθήτε,
μέσα στις εκκλησιές τες δαφνοφόραις
με το φως της χαράς συμμαζωχθήτε,
ανοίξατε αγκαλιές ειρηνοφόραις
ομπροστά στους Αγίους, και φιληθείτε,
φιληθείτε γλυκά χείλη με χείλη,
πέστε Χριστός ανέστη, εχθροί και φίλοι.
Δάφναις εις κάθε πλάκα έχουν οι τάφοι,
και βρέφη ωραία στην αγκαλιά οι μαννάδες,
γλυκόφωνα, κοιτώντας ταις ζωγραφι-
σμέναις εικόνες, ψάλλουνε οι ψαλτάδες,
λάμπει το ασήμι, λάμπει το χρυσάφι
από το φως που χύνουνε οι λαμπάδες,
κάθε πρόσωπο λάμπει απ' τ' αγιοκέρι,
οπού κρατούνε οι Χριστιανοί στο χέρι.
The Day of Easter, by Dionysios Solomos
The last cool star of dawn was
foretelling the brightest sunshine;
no cloud, no drift of mist was travelling
across any part of the sky.
Coming from there, the breeze
blew so sweetly across the face,
so gently, that it seemed
to whisper to the depths of the heart:
‘Life is sweet and death is darkness.’
‘Christ is Risen!’ Young and old, maidens,
everyone, little and great, prepare!
Inside the laurel-covered churches,
gather in the light of joy!
Open your arms and with them offer peace,
that the icons of the saints may see.
Embrace and kiss other sweetly, lip on lip,
let friend and foe proclaim, ‘Christ is Risen!’
Laurels are placed on every tomb,
beautiful babes are held in mothers’ arms,
the choristers sing sweetly
as they come before the icons.
Bright is the silver, bright is the gold,
under the light of the Easter candles.
Each face alights before the holy candles,
that Christians bear in hand.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.