September 18, 2002
Director Manoel de Oliveira is old enough to have once directed a silent documentary film as well as acted in the first Portuguese talkie, yet today he continues to actively direct contemporary films. His newest film, I'm Going Home, breaks little new ground, though one wouldn't really expect a man of 93 to be innovating so much as simply surviving. But this latest work is far more than the final gasp of a past-his-prime old warhorse; it is instead a still vital and mannered exposition on the habits and tribulations of humanity.
Not as successful as the brilliant autobiographical 1997 work Journey to the End of the World, this current piece demonstrates at least that the director's touch has not yet deserted him. The story revolves around an aging actor (Michel Piccoli), whom we first see acting on stage in a production of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist Exit the King. This deliberate choice is revealing, as the play involves the tale of a 400-year-old king whose kingdom is crumbling while his subjects wait for him to accept the inevitability of his death. There are echoes of this predicament in Piccoli's character, Gilbert Valence, but it is not the end of his own life that he must initially confront; instead, once the play ends he is informed that his wife, daughter and son-in-law have been killed in an automobile accident, leaving only his young grandson as a surviving family member.
The rest of the film revolves around Valence's stumbling attempts to come to grips with this event and the stuttering progress of his own life as he meanders towards his own inevitable meeting with the Grim Reaper. Favoring a directorial approach that steers away from explicit examination of his main character's sorrow, Oliveira instead is more likely to allow the audience to infer the emotions of his lead in small moments set in a darkened bedroom or the bustling streets of Paris. The measured pace of this action and the director's contemplative style help to give the film a rich emotional depth that is satisfying without being cloying or sentimental.
Rarely does the camera move within the frames of Oliveira's cinematic world; in fact, it sometimes even steadily lingers on after the main characters depart the frame, to give the audience a moment of reflection or to show the habitual actions of an anonymous Parisian. The staid rhythms of the film reflect the advanced age of Piccoli's character and evenly depict his actions in a way that enhances the underlying philosophical themes of the plot.
For the movie's final set-piece, Valence takes on a film role in a version of James Joyce's Ulysses by a famous director (John Malkovich, in a hilariously understated performance). He struggles with the work, as his no-longer-responsive body and mind try to cope with getting up to speed on the part. The actor here is fully confronted with the decline that time eventually visits upon us all, and somber atmosphere and tired utterance finally bring the film to its thoughtful conclusion.
I'm Going Home is certainly nothing if not the capable work of a mature film director. Mostly a young person's game, the case of Manoel de Oliveira demonstrates that there is room in the profession yet for this spry nonagenarian and his humanistic vision. While the heights reached with this current film are not quite at the apex of his output, there is enough depth of feeling and subtle, simple philosophy in this film to make it a worthy addition to an immense career. A career that, to the good fortune of filmgoers all over, has not yet breathed its last; Oliveira is now said to be hard at work at his next film. Perhaps some good things are meant to last.