Cristóvão Colombo – O Enigma

How does it feel to be a hundred years old?

Not very different from forty of fifty, if you’re anything like director Manoel de Oliveira as seen in his recent film Cristóvão Colombo – O Enigma.

Sprightly enough for a man several decades younger, standing tall and straight, accompanied by a loving wife who must be close in age, still driving, still driven, still curious and reflecting upon the state of the world, albeit, in this film, paring events and history down to essentials. Essentials that may simply be a long still shot of a sky with low rain-bearing clouds, with a few melancholy piano notes as sound track.

The enigma of the title relates to the origins of Christopher Columbus. The controversy about the great explorer’s birthplace makes it easy to speculate. Oliveira fans the controversy. According to the director, Columbus was not an Italian born near Genoa, nor of course, was he Spanish despite his close relation with his sponsors the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella (to whom he turned for financing his expeditions after rejection by the king of Portugal).

For the purpose of this short, gorgeously filmed movie, Columbus—or Colon– was Portuguese, as Oliveira insists were all navigators and discoverers of the world, not only the better-known ones such as Magellan, Vasco da Gama, or Pedro Álvares Cabral who first explored the land that became Brazil.

Never mind, Columbus’ possible Portuguese connection is just an opportunity for the oldest auteur still alive to riff on images, didactic dialogue of the kind familiar to Godard afficionados, what the past should mean to us and why it is important to remember our history, even when it’s more imagined than real.