Tour de Force
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Buy I'm Going Home on DVD.
The last time I visited my wife's family in Portugal, I asked some of them what they thought of their national treasure, 93 year-old filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, the only living filmmaker to have begun working in the silent era.
"Boring," was the almost universal answer.
Not that I can argue much. I've seen six Oliveira films and I admit that they often require a bit of work; they can be dreadfully dry and talky and still. But all of them contain moments of refreshing brilliance, and when he's good, he's a true master. The first Oliveira I saw, Voyage to the Beginning of the World (1997), moved me deeply.
On the other hand, his newest one, I'm Going Home, is one of the greatest films I've ever seen. Unlike the others, it's as light as a feather -- often beautiful and funny -- even though on the surface it tackles grief and old age. The film opens today at the Opera Plaza, Berkeley's Shattuck Cinemas and the Rafael Film Center for an all-too short run.
Like Voyage, which contained Marcello Mastroianni's final performance, I'm Going Home shows us an aged actor named Gilbert Valence in the autumn of his career. In this role, the legendary Michel Piccoli gives perhaps his greatest performance. This statement should not be taken lightly. We're talking about a man who has worked with Renoir, Bunuel, Godard, Hitchcock, and Rivette, and has starred in some of the flat-out greatest films ever made.
As in the recent In the Bedroom and The Son's Room, I'm Going Home takes on the death of loved ones younger than oneself. Yet, Oliveira shows little interest in the obvious grief or sorrow. Rather, I'm Going Home is about how we look at things, and how we choose to see certain things and to not see certain other things.
As the film begins, Valence totters around onstage performing Exit the King (with Catherine Deneuve at his side), magically turning in a brilliant performance with his back turned to us! As we watch the play, three men in suits enter the building and wait politely backstage until Valence is finished.
We soon learn indirectly that his wife, daughter and son-in-law have been killed in an accident, leaving only his grandson Serge, alive. Valence learns the news offscreen. The next time we see him, it's months later. Oliveira allows him a single wistful look at a photograph, but frames the shot in darkness with only Valence's silhouette showing.
We never know how deeply or how long Valence grieved, or if at all, but he seems to be back in the saddle again. He smiles at his grandson and continues to work.
The second time we see him on stage, he performs Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest. (The lovely Sylvie Testud from The Chateau and Murderous Maids plays Ariel.)
Around the time of this second performance, Valence attempts a semblance of daily life. He makes several trips to a favorite coffee shop, sits in a favorite seat and reads a favorite newspaper. (Oliveira sets up a wonderful joke concerning another coffee house patron who likes the same table but reads a competing newspaper.) He buys toy racecars for Serge and plays with him, and buys himself a snazzy new pair of shoes, which get stolen not long afterward.
Oliveira constructs I'm Going Home as a series of episodes meant to replicate daily routine. He uses his trademark long takes -- similar to past masters Dreyer, Ophuls and Kubrick -- and a brilliant sound design. Whenever we see Valence outside a shop window, we hear the sounds from inside; and when he's inside, we hear the sounds from outside. In one shot, a street musician plays music throughout.
Oliveira intersperses these scenes with breathtakingly lovely shots of Paris just after the beginning of 2000, such as the Eiffel Tower lit up at night and a Ferris wheel.
The images flow by at such a relaxed pace he gives us time to either ponder their hidden depths or to simply enjoy them.
The final and perhaps most important section of the film comes when Valence accepts the part of Buck Mulligan in an English language film of James Joyce's Ulysses, directed by an American named John Crawford (John Malkovich).
Valence has only a few days to memorize the awkward English lines. He runs through them twice, the first time during a rehearsal, the camera lingering on Malkovich's face for an extended length of time as he watches and listens -- an amazing sequence.
But during the actual shoot, all his loss and confusion finally catches up with Valence. He stops in the middle of a line reading, mutters the three title words and gets up and leaves. It's such a simple ending, but it shocks, provides a strange release and sends you home thinking.
I should reiterate that I'm Going Home is not as solemn as it sounds -- not nearly so depressing as In the Bedroom or The Son's Room. I liked and recommended both those earlier films, but never had an urge to see either a second time. I've seen I'm Going Home twice now and I'd see it again in a heartbeat.
It's one of the few new films that continues to resonate long after you've seen it. When you think of it again, the thoughts come easily and warmly and different ideas continue cropping up.
Most of all, I keep thinking of Valence's three performances, in Exit the King, The Tempest and Ulysses, at the beginning, middle and end of the film. The more you think about each one, the more they reveal, i.e. each character is a different age and each was written in and/or speaks a different language.
I've seen a handful of very good films this year, and a few near-great ones, but I'm Going Home is a masterpiece alone, a few laps ahead of the rest of the pack, and my most likely pick for the year's best film.
I know the Academy will probably want to award Russell Crowe or Tom Hanks again (yawn) this year, but members should take a little time to witness the great Piccoli in this film, who is so good that he performs two different scenes with only his feet. If anyone deserves an Oscar for Best Actor this year, it's him.