American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
There are a few movies where you can palpably sense the presence of the director behind the camera, and "I'm Going Home" is one of them. The movie is about an old actor who has lost many of those he loves but continues to work. The actor is played by France's great Michel Piccoli, who at 77 has appeared in 200 movies since 1945. And the director, whose breathing we can almost hear in our ear, is Manoel de Oliveira of Portugal, who is 94 and directed his first film in 1931.
When we first see the actor, named Gilbert Valence, he is onstage in a production of Ionesco's "Exit the King," and the film lingers on speeches in which the old man rails against his mortality and defines the unending memorials which he fancies will keep his name alive. After the play, he learns of a tragic accident that has robbed him of wife, daughter and son-in-law. "Some time later," we see him living with his young grandson and the nanny.
Gilbert's offstage life is one of routine, and it is here, in a touch both subtle and glancing, that de Oliveira makes his most poignant observation about how we die but life heedlessly goes on without us. Gilbert takes his coffee every morning in the same Paris cafe, sitting in the same chair at the same table and always reading the same morning paper, Liberation. As he gets up to go, another man enters, sits at the same table, and unfolds his copy of Le Figaro. This happens day after day.
One morning, the other man arrives early and takes another table. But when Gilbert frees his regular table, he gets up with alacrity to claim it--only to be headed off by a stranger who sits down first. These little scenes had a surprising impact on me. I often think of myself as a ghost at places I have visited: There is "my" cafe and "my" table, and when I return to a city there is a satisfaction in occupying them again, because it proves my own continuity. Of course those cafes also "belong" to others I will never know, and someday I will never return to them, and someday neither will the others, and someday the cafe will not be there. Yet daily ritual encourages us to believe that because things have been the same for a long time, they will always be the same.
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