I’m Going Home

"I'm going home."

Manoel de Oliveira’s I’m Going Home is an upsetting, downbeat work, but it doesn’t play like one. His tone is whimsical, but it conceals a fundamentally sad rumination on the various symbolic levels of death, with his protagonist meandering through purgatory before finally surrendering. In some ways, this is a less literal Defending Your Life, only without the cheery worldview and with a character who finds that he is unable to justify his existence.

The movie begins with a lengthy stage sequence, a Parisian production of “Exit the King,” at the conclusion of which renowned actor Gilbert Valence (Michel Piccoli) is told that his wife, his daughter and his son-in-law have been killed in a car accident. Flash to two years later. Gilbert has been left alone with his grandson Serge, tended mostly by the family’s long-time nanny. He loves Serge, but hardly gets to see him; their schedules conflict, as Gilbert still acts and the kid goes to school.

Gilbert seems to be coping, having turned to ritual to help him through. He wanders Paris alone, stopping at the same coffeeshop at the same time every day, making impulse purchases, invariably putting on a happy face. He continues his career, as well, taking on obscure stage plays, rejecting any offer that even begins to approach the mainstream. His agent and friend (Antoine Chappey) is exasperated by the search for projects Gilbert will like, and frustrated by his outright dismissals of potentially very lucrative deals. Gilbert does accept an offer from a renowned American director (John Malkovich) filming an adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysses, an undertaking that requires him to memorize his English part in merely three days.

The plot description doesn’t make I’m Going Home sound very eventful, and indeed the movie is more meditative than anything else. Oliveira, a Portugese filmmaker still prolific at the age of 94, has a very Tarkovsky-esque penchant for exaggeratedly long takes. Entire conversations take place while the camera peacefully observes the characters’ feet; elaborate tracking shots show the movements of people in Gilbert’s favorite coffeeshop long after he himself has departed.

Oliveira’s approach is justified thematically, as his protagonist essentially dies along with his family, spending the majority of the movie refusing to accept that fact, roaming the Paris streets in a state somewhere between being fully alive and entirely dead. The somber camerawork contrasts the tone of the rest of the film, which is imbued with a wistful humor and written with a light touch. Indeed, Gilbert’s inner state is well-concealed; it isn’t until the very end that he becomes visibly unhappy, when he can no longer hide behind the veil of denial.

The ending is as quiet as the rest of the movie, but subtly disturbing. As always, I don’t want to give anything away, but the film undergoes an abrupt change in tone signaled by the verbal utterance of the title, which leads to a surprising, powerful final sequence. Frankly, I was blindsided by the overt pessimism here, the complete hopelessness that the last scenes of the movie impart. The concluding shot in particular may be one of the most depressing images I’ve seen on screen this year.

The problem is that Oliveira never justifies the utter desperation suffered by his protagonist, and while the movie is certainly potent in its affecting sadness, there is sometimes a feeling that Oliveira is indulging in it. Nevertheless, I’m Going Home is a masterful film from a master filmmaker, unique in its deceptive grimness, compelling in its fatalist worldview.

-- Eugene Novikov

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