Nearly every article about Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira--who'll turn 94 in December--begins with the requisite props given to the old master's accomplishment at being...well, old. What you're reading now, I suppose, is another such article. But if age alone were a sign of quality, then Leni Riefenstahl's documentary on her scuba diving--to be released later in this, the year of her 100th birthday--would surely dethrone Citizen Kane as Sight & Sound's Greatest Film Ever Made (i.e., not bloody likely). And the crappy Webcam footage that I downloaded last night--made by a preteenager with his daddy's DV camera--would be the unheralded triumph of the new millennium (ditto). Yes, Manoel de Oliveira is as old as a really fine bottle of port--but, surely, age doesn't matter.
Or does it? Jean-Luc Godard--who's none too young himself--has a theory that filmmakers are at their most interesting when they're at their youngest or their oldest. And Oliveira's latest, I'm Going Home, is surely the most atypical film that the veteran director of The Convent and Inquietude has made in a career characterized by the most literal approach to words and actions. Indeed, this exceedingly personal and self-reflexive love letter to the cinema could almost pass for a crowd pleaser.
At once rigorous and riotous, often within the same sequence, I'm Going Home begins with an intellectual tease: a marathon staging of a scene from Ionesco's Exit the King, with an ancient-looking but extremely personable Gilbert Valence (Michel Piccoli) as the doddering character whose senility has become full-blown. The scene goes on for what seems like an eternity--for about 15 minutes, actually. (I timed it.) For any other director, such a thing would be unthinkable; for Oliveira, it's just another day on the set. Oliveira favors turning the film screen into a proscenium, and he could care less whether his viewers get slivers. The scene ends, and that's the joke: There's actually a plot. (The real action has taken place offstage.) Gilbert discovers that his wife and child have died in a car accident, and, rather than collapsing from the pain, he internalizes it. And rather than turning this potentially doleful scenario into a dirge about Gilbert's unremitting grief, Oliveira manages to make a film that's about both mortality and anticipation.
Time passes, and, with the emotional support of his grandson (plus a new pair of shoes), Gilbert's life returns to normal. Oliveira takes time to ponder the Parisian present--treating the city at the turn of the millennium like a fairytale backdrop where cafés become the settings of Tatiesque misunderstandings, and where danger, too, lurks at night. (Say au revoir to those shoes.) Somewhat out of sorts with the modern world, the aged actor must balance his artistic requirements and his financial needs--turning down a patently ludicrous offer to star in a sex- and violence-packed TV series, and finally agreeing to star as, of all people, the not exactly French Buck Mulligan in a film version of Joyce's Ulysses, directed by a quiet American (John Malkovich).
Despite two long scenes in the theater (Gilbert hits the stage again to play Prospero--but it could just as well be Lear), there's little interplay between the characters. Oliveira meditates on two styles of acting--that for the cinema and the theatre--and demystifies their "magic." Wearing a ridiculous wig, Gilbert flubs his way through Ulysses, straining to deliver such eloquent Joyce-isms as, "Printed by the weird sisters in the year of the big wind." Meanwhile, Oliveira's camera fixes on Malkovich's director, picking at his fingernails, for an extra-long closeup. Mixing comedy and tragedy, Gilbert's inner pain takes on an outward manifestation: He's losing his mind--and, perhaps more important, his ability to act. The best joke, though, is that, unlike Gilbert, Oliveira has all of his faculties intact.