A heartless wag might say that "Eternity and a Day" lasts an eternity and two days. A serious filmgoer might respond, "And even then, it feels short."

It's an example of that species of elegiac, slow, deep European art film that asks questions like "What is the meaning of life?" and "What is the meaning of death?" and "What is time?" but somehow never "Will Mary Katherine get into the talent show?"

An acquired taste, to be sure, but certainly not a trivial one. The movie, which opens today for a week at the American Film Institute, won the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes International Film Festival for director Theo Angelopoulos. It follows the last few days of a Greek poet who, we understand, is trying to reach some sense of peace, knowing that when he checks into the hospital he won't be checking out.

The movie has a lulling surface--smooth, calm water is both its predominant image and the perfect metaphor for its tranquil artistic technique. Alexandre (the great Bruno Ganz) has returned to his boyhood home to recollect his life. It's a magnificent beach house, and he can look about and almost seem to return to days in that life (the miracle of movies): the wife and children he loved, his family, his career, things that exist only in his own mind.

Death haunts him. When he plays a CD, an answering CD is played by an unknown apartment dweller across the way, a stranger, and we don't have to be told that the stranger is waiting for him.

As he wanders the streets in an ecstasy of melancholy and remembrance, he meets a small boy, a squeegee kid fleeing the police, and something in the boy's grace and charm engages him. Yes, I know it sounds like "Death in Venice" in Athens, and you're thinking: Why? Venice is a much cooler city!

But there's no strain of eros: Alexandre sees in the boy (Achilleas Skevis) the obvious; that is, a sense of continuation. His growing involvement in the boy's life--even to the point of a heroic rescue from some kind of murky adoption-for-profit ring--is a last grace note in a life lived with passion and talent.

This is one of those movies that almost defy criticism. It is to be felt rather than penetrated. But Ganz and Angelopoulos give it a sense of transcendence that lingers far longer than the film's 132-minute running time.

Eternity and a Day (at the AFI's National Film Theater at the Kennedy Center) is unrated and unobjectionable, though it has adult themes and ideas.

CAPTION: A Greek poet (Bruno Ganz) examines life from the brink of death in "Eternity and a Day."