At 93, the Portuguese auteur Manoel de Oliveira is the only working director who began his career in silent cinema. He remembers his youthful crush on Mary Pickford and starring as an actor in Portugal’s first talkie. Beyond his numerous period films, details of times past—an elegant woman wearing a 1930s hat and veil, or the fin-de-siècle tunes of a Parisian organ grinder—turn up even in his contemporary dramas, yet there’s nothing remotely dated about his work. He’s acutely aware of the passage of time; behind his tinted green glasses, his eyes are wide open.
In his latest film to be released here, I’m Going Home (opening August 14 at Film Forum), the great Michel Piccoli plays Gilbert Valence, a legendary Parisian actor who is starring in Exit the King, Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist drama about an aging monarch reluctant to relinquish his throne. One evening, upon leaving the stage, Gilbert learns that his wife, daughter, and son-in-law have died in a car accident; only his young grandson (Jean Koeltgen) remains in his care. Oliveira handles the film’s dark events with grace, humor, and sly insouciance, creating a profound meditation on mourning, the perils of aging, and the artistic life.
“The film is set around New Year’s Eve of the year 2000,” the director explains. “All of Paris is celebrating the arrival of the new century. Yet they’re also remembering a happy past which may never return, a world in which human relations have changed irrevocably. On the one hand, life, a party, harmony, and hope—and on the other, a doubtful and terribly dangerous future.”
“We lack water, you know,” he continues. “We’re going to lack fuel, to lack air, to lack everything. And people aren’t getting along. They’re more and more aggressive. We’ve passed the summit of the mountain now, and before us lies the abyss.”
Born in Porto, Portugal, the son of an industrialist, Oliveira was educated by Jesuits, an experience recalled in his autobiographical 1997 film, Voyage to the Beginning of the World. After brief stints as an actor, gymnast, and race car driver, he directed Douro, Fania Fluvial (1929), a silent documentary short—made under the influence of Vertov and Eisenstein—depicting life along the banks of the Douro river. His first feature was Aniki-Bobo (1942), a neo-realist morality tale starring the street kids of Oliveira’s home town. “I couldn’t make a film like that today,” he says. “The world has changed too much.”
In addition to documentaries focusing on the working classes (like the Pasolinian Acto do Primavera, 1963), he’s made films about doomed love among the bourgeoisie (Francisca, 1983); avant-garde costume dramas (including the over-six-hour-long Satin Slipper), and literary adaptations like The Valley of Abraham (1993), the story of Madame Bovary transposed to contemporary Portugal.
In I’m Going Home, Oliveira never lets us see Gilbert’s grief directly; instead, we’re meant to intuit it. “When he wakes each day, he looks at a photograph,” says Piccoli. “We understand that it’s a photograph of the dead. Any other director would have shown a close-up of the picture, or the actor’s sad face. Manoel lets you imagine it.”
During a long scene, Gilbert’s friend and agent interrogates him about his solitary life, while he avoids answering. During their conversation, Oliveira’s camera remains closely focused on their feet. “He’s very discreet, Manoel,” Piccoli says. “It’s part of his discretion not to lean heavily upon the actor’s emotions. Filming the shoes lets you see that Gilbert isn’t interested at all in what’s being said. I find it very moving to film the shoes and feet of someone who’s suffering from a great loss. It turns the scene into a metaphysical farce.”
The film’s title comes from a sentence Gilbert utters after a morning spent rehearsing the role of Buck Mulligan in a film adaptation of Ulysses, directed by a distinguished American auteur (played in a hilarious cameo by John Malkovich). “It’s a magical formula—’I’m going home.’ ” Oliveira said. “It means, I want to rest. Well, the only true repose for man is in the belly of his mother. Gilbert’s grandson is at home. But he lacks his mother, his true protection. His grandfather can’t fulfill the same function. What is his future?”