By Victor Bruno
There is a shot, halfway through Christopher Columbus – the Enigma, that reminds me very much of a shot in Lawrence of Arabia. The camera is a long, long way from its subject, and the subject (in Columbus, it is a car; in Lawrence, a camel) crosses the camera from the left to the right. We barely can distinguish what it is—we are so distant that it becomes nothing else than a point on the horizon.
Manoel de Oliveira and David Lean. What a comparison! It looks like two completely different worlds, doesn’t it? Well, we’ll come back to this comparison later.
“We can’t die now… and Portugal has a greater destiny…”
When I watch a film by Manoel de Oliveira, I usually try to adapt his obsession about the conscience of the Portuguese people with the conscience of the Brazilian people. The most obvious difference between these two people is incrusted in their History—while Portugal has a history of conquering and colonization and then later they simply lost it all in humiliating ways, Brazil never conquered anything. Its greatest achievement, military speaking, is a prolonged war against peasants in the South of the country—the War of the Rags, as it is called.
Oliveira, too, has Portugal’s failures very much in mind. The Battle of Alcácer-Quibir is the most flagrant one. He made an entire film with the only objective to make a scene about it—Non, or: The Vain Glory of Command. Later, he made The Fifth Empire, again talking about the king D. Sebastian, the Desired, who was killed in that battle. Now, we have The Old Man from Belem, a short subject in which Camilo Castelo Branco, Don Quijote, Luís de Camões and Teixeira de Pascoaes sit on a bench in modern Lisbon to talk about… failure.[i] (And I’m actually surprised that Fr. Antonio Vieira, a writer Oliveira frequently quotes in interviews and in his movies [he has actually made one about him—Word and Utopia], doesn’t appear in this movie.)
But why does Manoel de Oliveira come back to these episodes of failure and loss? I think that to him, the identity of the Portuguese nation is shaped by these episodes. The Portuguese people have this folkloric movement, the Quinto Império (Fifth Empire), which says that someday, Portugal will recover all the land it once had and will run the world. This feeling of remorse and revenge is not exclusive of Portugal: let’s remind the famous American southern maxim, “The South will rise again.” Portugal has this same feeling.[ii]
But what is important to know is that Oliveira does not subscribe to this movement. To him, Portugal had its chance and then lost it, and the world kept spinning. He is a highly conservative filmmaker, and his work is to show people that Portugal’s time in History has gone, has vanish and the people of the country will need to live with the glory that it once had. To Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal’s greatest triumph was to show the Old World the path to America (America as the entire continent, not only the United States). Oliveira thinks that the function of Portugal in History was to be some kind of a lighthouse, and its ruing was bought by a mad desire (a very important word in his filmography, as we will see) of control the world, and Portugal can’t even control its own frontiers, let alone those that are far-flung.
The words and the vistas
To me, I don’t think that neither Non, The Fifith Empire or The Old Man from Belem are Manoel de Oliveira’s greatest study about the conscience of Portuguese people. Oh, no. I think that this prize goes to Christopher Columbus – the Enigma, a small film (runs for one hour and 14 minutes) about a couple that goes through five decades trying to prove that Columbus was actually Portuguese.
What is beautiful in the movie is that despite being in the title, Christopher Columbus is not even close of being the principal subject of the movie. In a highly Hitchcockian manner, he is a MacGuffin. What the film is really about is the essence of love and the essence of Portugal. It is a journey of discovery, and, just as Rossellini did with his “didactical movies”, Oliveira brings us the very experience of being Columbus, of being Vasco da Gama or Pedro Álvares Cabral by making us join the searchers Manoel Luciano and Sílvia (in youth, Ricardo Trêpa and Leonor Baldaque; later, Manoel de Oliveira himself and his wife Maria Oliveira). The author is not interested in showing the research, to explain nothing. It is through the pain of the trips they make to discover who Columbus was in fact that we experience their love—for each other and for the History of their country.
Perhaps one of the trademarks of Oliveira’s cinema is his love for the words. There are big monologues all through his films and the actors that work with him play their characters in an idiosyncratic way. The camera almost always is stationary and when it moves, we always remember when it does (in the big epic Abraham’s Valley it only moves three times, always in important moments, so we’ll always remember). But that is to say that the words in a Manoel de Oliveira film are more important than the visual? Well, to me, to think it is to be lazy: only a bad filmmaker makes a film in which the words are more important than the visuals. No one, not even Dreyer in Gertrud, managed to do that. And Oliveira is a filmmaker to which the forms, the space, the geography is very much in mind when he turns the camera on.
Clouds, flags, valleys, churches, streets, doors, and the essence of light are always a constant in Oliveira’s cinema. These are simple things that no one can make a mistake in seeing. They have almost a biblical connotation to them: as Northrop Frye says, forms like trees and mountains in Bible always play important roles, and so they do in Manoel de Oliveira’s Bible/guide to Portugal. He is a filmmaker that loves to film the forms of things. I could even use the Brenezian term “figure”, but since I don’t know what it means and she can’t explain, I will stick with form, which is a simply, obvious three-dimensional shape that occupies a place in Existence. And Oliveira is a filmmaker of things in Existence—whether if it is on the present or if it was on the past. But the form of the things is always there.
And what form is always there, what form was witness of things of the past and of the present? Well, the Earth itself. In Christopher Columbus – the Enigma we are almost always on the outfields, seeing the magic of the journey being played. Manoel de Oliveira is a patriotic man, and so he is not shy to film the beautiful hills and valleys and the solitary roads that criss-cross Portugal. And Oliveira knows his country: there is a difference, and the characters comment on it, between Açores and, say, Porto. One has hills, the other is a flatland. And when I commented on the “essence of light”, I didn’t mean only when light is visible on the shot, like if someone had left the door open and light is flooding in on the room (although that happens too). I meant that Portugal has a different light: it is softer, more oblique, and more palpable. It’s like a form in itself.
Manoel de Oliveira is a filmmaker of the space and time, just like that Verve song. He knows that the places on Earth are different, and he wants us to see this difference. A church here is not the same church that is there—and if it is equal, it has a different meaning.
And that is when David Lean enters in this conversation. Both he and Oliveira are two filmmakers that essentially filmed the vastness, the forms. Perhaps Lean did it in a more sumptuous way, because he had more money and recourses, but all the same it is the same thing: the car that crosses the screen in Oliveira’s picture is the camels that cross the screen in Lean’s picture.
Epilogue: the angel
There is one last thing I would like to talk about before we end this conversation. It has nothing to do with geography and forms, but I would like to say it all the same. Or, perhaps, it even has.
Through Christopher Columbus – the Enigma we have a character, a mystical presence that appears from time to time. It is a young woman, dressed in the colors of Portugal, red and green, sword in hand. In the final credits she is identified as “The Angel”. To me she is the leading character of the picture.
It is obvious: she is the guardian of Portugal. But the essence of this character is so sweet, so soft, it is impossible not to be moved by her. There is not a pattern for her appearance (or, if it has, I would rather preserve my ignorance and not spoil the magic of this character). She is just there, protecting the couple the film follows, in their search for something that may not even exist. The Angel represents the desire of this couple, of an entire nation, to be recognized. She smiles when the characters talk about the inventions and achievements of Portugal: it’s like she was there and she remembers. There is even a layer of sexiness in her—her skirt does not cover her entire leg, she shows some skin, her hair floats on the wind, as does the veil of Maureen O’Hara in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. This sexiness is an ethereal one—it has something to do with the desire of being free, of being recognized. And I wasn’t surprised when she appeared when one of the characters, Manoel’s wife, actually, said the word “desire”.
[i] It’s interesting to know who these people are, as an “intellectual” trivia: Don Quijote, everybody knows, is the pinnacle of the craziness and failure of the Western culture. Luís de Camões wrote The Lusiads, an epic poem about the great achievements of Portuguese navigators, and one of the characters is the very “Old man from Belem” (or, in the original language, “O velho do Restelo”, a neighborhood in Lisbon), someone who is suspicious of everything and thinks that everything Portugal has conquered one day will vanish into thin air. Camilo Castelo Branco wrote a book called O Senhor do Paço de Ninães, which has a scene that inspired a whole sequence in Non—it was about the Battle of Alcácer-Quibir. And, finally, Teixeira de Pascoaes, a poet I have no familiarity with, but Google says that he is one of the most important figures of the Saudosista movement—which has something to do about longing and nostalgia.
[ii] They also have this messianic movement called Sebastianism which says that someday, the king D. Sebastian, the same that was killed in the Battle of Alcácer-Quibir, will return. The ending of Christopher Columbus – the Enigma is almost a nod to this movement: characters looking out to the sea, waiting for something. The Sebastianist movement has a mystical thing with the sea: the king D. Sebastian will return through the sea and his followers must be waiting for him. This coined the popular expression “À ver navios” (“Left watching ships”, literally): waiting for something that never will happen.