Manoel de Oliveira’s I’m Going Home might have made a fitting swan song for the 93-year-old director if he weren’t still so spry; unlike his main character, the filmmaker obviously has more work to do. After a performance in Ionesco’s Exit the King, Gilbert Valence (the great Michel Piccoli) discovers that his entire family (minus his grandson) has been killed in a car crash. He is an aging actor, friendly to his admirers (he is frequently seen signing autographs) and careful when making important choices. Gilbert’s decision-making (to buy or not to buy a pair of shoes, to take or decline a role in an action-packed American film) suggests a willingness to overcome his overwhelming sense of loss, except he doesn’t know how. Though he takes risks, he discovers that comfort lies in that which is familiar. Too young for a role in the aforementioned action film and too old for the part of Buck Mulligan in a screen adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses (directed by John Malkovich’s John Crawford), Gilbert not only becomes a victim of typecasting but a slave to his mortality. Staring at a Jack Vettriano painting depicting dancing lovers, Piccoli profoundly evokes Gilbert’s sense of loss and remorse. On the Exit the King stage, a character says of Gilbert’s King Berenger: “His majesty the king is raving.” Like his Berenger, Gilbert is seemingly convinced that his power is intact. Gilbert busies himself after the death of his family (he buys the shoes, he takes the part in the film) as if to return to normalcy. Tragically, Gilbert’s shoes are stolen and he soon finds himself struggling through his demanding English role in Ulysses. Oliveira’s compositions engage silent film idiom to glorious effect, and the story itself unravels like a great silent work with a haunting open ending. However sad, Oliveira suggests that there is no place like home and certainly no better place to die.
So it goes that the crummy Hollywood films get the excellent DVD transfers and the excellent indie and foreign films get the crummy ones. I’m Going Home isn’t as manhandled on this Image Entertainment DVD edition as Claude Chabrol’s Merci Pour Le Chocolat was by First Run Pictures, but it still doesn’t do justice to Manoel de Oliveira’s often startling color palette. The grainy print lacks vibrancy, shadow delineation is poor and edge enhancement is near crippling. The audio doesn’t fare much better. Though dialogue is perfectly audible, you’ll have to pump the volume on your remote up or down in order to negotiate the varying levels used to record the film’s score, dialogue and surround sounds.
If you’ve ever heard Richard Peña (Columbia University professor and Program Director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center) speak in person you may be familiar with the man’s dry and often monotonous tone, but you’re also aware of his unmistakable passion for the cinema. Peña’s commentary track on this DVD edition of I’m Going Home sounds scripted but it’s a crucial listen. Peña not only expertly dissects the film, but he generously contextualizes many of the films themes using de Oliveira’s earlier films and his history in the cinema since the silent era. De Oliveira himself discusses the origins of the project on a separate 14-minute interview that shows that the 94-year-old is showing no signs of slowing down. Also included here is the film’s theatrical trailer.
The transfer doesn’t do the film justice, but cinephilles will have a hard time coming by another recent DVD release of a crucial film accompanied by an equally crucial commentary track.