At 100 years old, Manoel de Oliveira is not only the world’s oldest working filmmaker but one of the most important as well. As he embarks on his second century — and with his A Talking Picture playing on Thursday at BAM’s The Late Film series — we look back at a 2001 offering from the Portuguese master, a film that takes its lead character’s (as well as its director’s) mortality as its central subject.
In the first scene of I’m Going Home — a 15-minute on-stage performance of Ionesco’s Exit the King — actor Gilbert Valence (Michel Piccoli) struts his stuff as the titular monarch, an aging, doddering buffoon forced, at last, to confront that undreamed of possibility: his own mortality. By the film’s end, Valence has moved some ways toward his own dotage, a tired old man who like another of his theatrical incarnations has little to do but turn “every third thought” towards the “grave”. And in between, the actor, having just lost his wife and daughter in a car accident, goes about his daily life, plays with his grandson and takes his occasional turn on the stage.
To live is to perform in Manoel de Oliveira’s generous, gently humorous film; unless it’s simply to live. Much of the running time is devoted to Valence’s quotidian routine, which repeats itself with cyclical precision — his daily trip to a cafe is presented three times with small Jeanne Dielman-like variations; when he ventures in a fourth time he starts to crack completely. Most of the public scenes are shot through windows, the conversations never audible, as if Valence had no autonomous social existence, the actor only coming alive beneath the stage lights, under the guise of a fresh persona. At least until the third act, when hastily impressed into playing Buck Mulligan in a film version of Ulysses — the change of medium is not insignificant — he starts to stumble over his lines and the whole edifice of a life, professional and private, begins its final tumble downward.