Punning easily off the title of a recent film of his, critics often speak of Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira’s work as talking pictures. I happen to like that some of the last few of the master’s works, like A Talking Picture, more recently his quasi-sequel to Belle de jour entitled Belle toujours, and now his most recent film Christopher Columbus, The Enigma, are traveling pictures, historically aware, politically resonant travelogues in sublime miniature.
It is an all together different kind of tourism, the wanderings of his characters; in A Talking Picture from West to East in the reaches of European civilization, in Belle toujours from the image and memory of one women to others, and in Christopher Columbus to the Discoveries, a search spanning over 60 years, to track down the monuments and ruins of Portugal’s former glory and fame, honoring origins and spirit, lamenting the bare remnants of past virtues and accomplishments.
A threadbare story of a Portuguese doctor (Ricardo Trêpa) emigrating to the United States, returning to Portugal to be married to his bride (Leonor Baldaque), and seemingly spending his entire life looking for the traces of Portuguese ancestry of Columbus, the film moves in space and time from 1947 Lisbon to travels across the Atlantic, castles and countrysides in Portugal in the 1960s, and New York City in 2007. Time passes and the search is never finished; the married couple end up in contemporary New York. Now played by de Oliveira himself and his wife, Maria Isabel, they reflect casually, painfully, and playfully on their own marriage—that is, that of the characters—and its submergence to the passion for historical continuity and pride in the Portuguese heart.
The mission of the film is a mission reminiscent of Godard’s work of the late 1960s and 1970s—demonstrative, realism-based pedagogic cinema, lessons on the state of the world in precise terms. Only here, today’s state—for Portugal especially—only has meaning within the weight of importance of the magnificent quests of discovery of the past. The parade of exquisitely shot (photography by Sabine Lancelin) and framed statues, churches, tombs, museums, and coastal seas that make up much of the traveling, searching married couple’s “story” serve that terrible, melancholic dual purpose of teaching us about a wonderful legacy at the same time the camera records the past, gone forever. Here, the act of turning on the camera is an act that immediately admits a loss of something of civilization, and as such, of humanity, in our modern world.
De Oliveira’s playfulness still fits into the melancholic mission, though no gesture is done without some small element of sadness for the film. The Portuguese arriving in a New York City are so enshrouded in fog that all that can be made of the city are the modern marvel of electric stoplights (flashing the Republic’s national colors!); a recitation of Emma Lazarus’s poem from the Statue of Library proceeding a halting, touching, and muddled conversation between de Oliveira and his wife about how they have managed to love each other all these years; a guardian angel, also dressed in the colors of the Republic watching over the couple’s trips around Portuguese soil with a casual sadness, and perhaps cinematic and meta-thematic uselessness.
One also cannot underplay the lucid, simple beauty of Lancelin’s photography, shots of the sea as aggressive and mysterious as it must have been 500 years ago, clever points of view shots playing with the film’s documenting of flags, ceilings, photographs. A priest speaks of the missing statue of a saint in his church which was smashed in the courtyard, and upon exiting the church de Oliveira alters slightly the same establishing shot that brought the couple into the church, this time tilting the camera down a bit to catch more of the stony yard as the young wife slowly traverses it, removing her shawl from her head and stepping over the material that was witness to revolution and desecration, now tarnished, banal, and a bare historical curiosity. Is that what is left, too, of Columbus’ Discoveries, of the Portuguese historical legacy, of human curiosity and colossal national influence on the state of the world? 500 years may pass before we see the current changes wrought upon the world in the name of nationality and human progress with the same melancholy and romance as the characters of de Oliveira’s wonderful film.