Christopher Columbus, The Enigma (2007)
Last night BAM held the opening of their essential Manoel de Oliveira retrospective, in honor of his 100th year on this fine planet. Encapsulating a lifetime of filmmaking, they screened his first narrative feature Aniki Bobo (1942), and his most recent, Christopher Columbus, The Enigma (2007). Their major coup was getting Oliveira himself to attend and partake in a Q&A after Columbus. Peering enigmatically through his shades, and clad in a natty brown suit while wielding his cherry red cane, he was an intimidating presence - at least until he cracked a bemused smile and humored a few awed onlookers: What were his favorite actors to work with? Speaking through a translator, he said, "That's easy, me and my wife."
Both of them appear in the final section of the entrancing Christopher Columbus, a mournful walking tour of Portuguese maritime history couched in the true story of Manuel Luciano da Silva and his wife Silvia, who spent their life trying to prove Columbus' Portuguese ancestry. It hopscotches from Manuel's post-WWII voyage to NYC to his honeymoon in in rural Portugal in the 60s, all the way up their NYC return in 2007, where Oliveira and his wife portray the couple. It's a film of monumentality - emphasized in Manuel's looks upward at the statues of Portugal's former glory - these upward looks also a commentary on what's missing in their country once they look down. On board the ship to NYC, an older man tells the young Manuel and his brother, that "there is nothing worse than being dependent on others", a commentary both about aging and the role of Portugal on the world stage.
As Manuel leads his wife on his obsessive tour through Portugal's maritime feats, an image from the past seems to haunt him. There is a woman, dressed as Portugal's guardian angel, watching him impassively as he wends his way through the ghosts of his country's imperial glory. It's a theatrical touch that only gains resonance as the film moves on, she is protecting crumbling buildings and memories, willed into life by Manuel's obsession. She looks grateful for this respite from obsolescence, and is granted a graceful close-up during the final sequence - capturing the bitter nostalgia that marks the film as a whole.
The last section, where Oliveira and his wife Maria Isabel tour through New York, is simply beautiful. Manoel remarks on Columbus Circle's own angel, and Maria Isabel recites Emma Lazarus' "The New Colussus" before mourning that its goals were more wished for than achieved. They also travel to Dighton Rock Park in Massachusetts, where model vessels of Vasco de Gama and Magellan spark the historical details Oliveira's films abound in. It also occassions some gentle insults from Maria as she's dragged to one more memory of a faded power.
After the screening, Oliveira trundled up to the stage, replaced the battery in his hearing aid, and held forth. He emphasized the melancholy nature of the film, the comparison between Portugal's past glory and present impoverishment. He was asked how he thinks his style has changed since the neo-realist Aniki-Bobo (1942) to the present. He discussed the early influence of Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov on his early documentary work (Working on the Douro River (1931)), and then the long period of reflection he went through before making his fiction debut with Aniki, which he described as humanist, lacking the political aspect of neo-realism.
Moving on to Columbus, he stated that it was a film in resistence to today's cinema, one not based on movement. He elaborated upon this statement by differentiating between camera movement and Georges Melies' movement, or movement within the frame, which he says he's utilized in his recent work. When asked if the ending of Columbus shows more optimism towards the present than the apocalyptic ending of A Talking Picture, Oliveira agreed that the two films were companion pieces, but disagreed about the tone, saying that the ending of Columbus was one of bitterness.
Labels: Manoel de Oliveira