Manoel de Oliveira in a minor key is the quickest description of the 98-year-old director’s latest Venice entry, “Christopher Columbus — The Enigma.” Even more a family affair than usual, with the helmer and his wife in featured roles, the basic plot follows an amateur researcher’s quest to prove Columbus’ Portuguese origins, while also serving as a poetic take on a couple’s longtime devotion. Stylistically even more stripped-down than usual, with dialogue functioning largely as an explanatory tool, pic will play at Oliveira-friendly fests, and no more.
In 1946, the Da Silva brothers Manuel and Herminio (Ricardo and Jorge Trepa, the helmer’s grandsons) emigrate to the U.S., where Manuel becomes a doctor. Returning to Portugal to marry Silvia (Leonor Baldaque), he sets out to prove his theory that Columbus was born in the Portuguese town of Cuba. Oliveira and wife Maria Isabel play the real-life couple in later years, though the helmer is more interested in the pursuit of knowledge than in proving their hypothesis. While pic stays non-jingoistically nationalistic, a silent angel (Lourenca Baldaque) acting as guardian witness and representing Portugal just feels silly. DV is crisp and full-bodied.
— Jay Weissberg