REVIEW: A Undisputed Master, but Still Unknown in the U.S.; de Oliveira Returns at Age 93 with "I'm Going Home"
by Scott Foundas
(indieWIRE/08.19.02) -- Manoel de Oliveira is, in the U.S. at least, among the least recognized of the world's great contemporary filmmakers. But to say so may be redundant, in that being one of the world's great contemporary filmmakers and being well-known in the U.S. is almost always a contradiction in terms, unless you happen to be American and your language of choice is English. Even then there are no guarantees, and it's no doubt particularly difficult for American viewers to comprehend de Oliveira, who has made films in Portuguese, French, English and even silent films over the course of his 70-year career.
But de Oliveira hardly seems bothered by this shunning. At age 93, he has had films in the official selection at Cannes five years out of the last eight and is in the midst of perhaps his most vital creative period. He is making films with big, international stars now -- John Malkovich, Catherine Deneuve and the late Marcello Mastroianni, in particular -- and his filmmaking itself has evolved into a frothy and effortless personal expression. There's not a hint of stodginess in de Oliveira's best films nor in de Oliveira himself -- it could be said that he is now making the films of a much younger man, were there not so few nonagenarian directors with whom to compare him, and were it not for the fact that youth itself is no guarantor of youthfulness.
"I'm Going Home," which was shot in Paris in 2000, and which features the great actor Michel Piccoli in maybe his greatest performance ever (certainly, it's one to put beside his turn in "La Belle Noiseuse") is what might be called a grand, summing-up film for de Oliveira -- one which seems to contextualize the longevity of his career as it confronts aging and one's desire to avert time's onward march. That is how the film might be considered, had de Oliveira not already done almost exactly that in his 1997 feature, "Voyage to the Beginning of the World," which starred Mastroianni as an aging filmmaker clearly patterned on de Oliveira. Yet both films, despite their summary power, are so intimate and unfettered by any grand design, that it's tempting to see them as two halves -- or, rather, the first two parts -- of some Proustian autobiographical whole. For at 93, de Oliveira and his films have become such a pleasure to behold, and who is to deny him his right to make two, four, or ten films about the puzzle of taking one's life into account?
Here, Piccoli does not play a filmmaker, but rather a celebrated actor, Gilbert Valence, who is informed that his wife, daughter, and son-in-law have died in a car crash. Valence assumes partial custody of his young grandson and, from there, we watch as the great performer attempts to cope with his sudden loss. To be specific, we watch as Valence more or less returns to his daily routine of morning coffee at a sidewalk cafe, afternoon shopping expeditions, and the continual search for the next great part. All of these actions are filtered by de Oliveira through an almost imperceptible, preternatural sadness. (Because de Oliveira hasn't included any scenes that directly address Valence's mourning, every scene seems somehow mournful as a result.) Valence's buying of a new pair of shoes, for example, is triumphant and melancholy, precisely for the ordinariness with which it is executed; buying the shoes makes Valence feel good, even though his world has recently been upended.
In another extraordinary sequence, Valence sits motionless in a chair, being made-up for the role of Buck Mulligan in a Franco-American co-production of "Ulysses." It's an absurd notion -- filming the great book at all, let alone by an American crew on a French soundstage (appropriately, the madness springs from the mind of John Malkovich, who plays the project's American director), and with the ill-cast Valence stumbling through an under-rehearsed, English-speaking performance. (It's hard not to see this as a sly joke, on Oliveira's behalf, about his own anonymity in the U.S.) But at the same time, as layer upon layer of cosmetics are applied to Valence to take year upon year off of his appearance, that absurdity becomes Oliveira's testament to the transformative power of film, as though he has discovered the fountain of youth, and its name is the cinema.
In the opening frames of "I'm Going Home," we see Valence performing in a production of Ionesco's "Exit the King," tragi-comically clinging to his throne, reverting to infantile behavior in a vain attempt to postpone the inevitable. Later, the production is "The Tempest" and Valence is the wizened Prospero, selecting his retirement in Milan, where every third thought will be his grave. As Mulligan, Valence is at last offered the reclamation of his youth -- as though de Oliveira, from behind the camera, had extended an invite -- and he rejects it. "Je rentre a la maison," he says, with assurance and dignity, and then proceeds home through the streets of Paris, in full costume, to spend the rest of the afternoon (and maybe his life) with his grandson.
Moments like this are serenely powerful, because de Oliveira doesn't push hard to make us understand them in a particular emotional context. Had this story been fabricated by Hollywood (as, when you consider the plot, it so easily might have) we would have been told -- no, forced -- to feel in certain ways about certain things at every waking celluloid moment. There would be some overarching pattern at work: Valence would come to find that real life has more meaning than "reel" life; even better, he would find through his acting the cathartic relief he could not find on his own. Perhaps it is precisely this aversion to preprogrammed sentiment that has made "I'm Going Home" a tough sell in the U.S. (It is only just now showing up, 15 months after its Cannes premiere.) But it is to our great benefit that nothing in de Oliveira's masterful film is nearly so trivial.