A Boring Beauty : 1492 Conquet of Paradise

by Paige Lurie

The Nina and the Pinta and the Santa Maria set sail in film

In 1492: The Conquest of Paradise, Columbus sailed the ocean blue – and viewers were bored too. Now this movie was not as bad as we expected. The highest compliment we can pay is to the movie is that it is “watchable”. We were indeed able to make it through all two-and-half hours without throwing up our hands and giving up (which is exactly what my film buff dad predicted we would end up doing). Let’s start with the good:

The movie was visually stunning. Filmed on location in Jaco, Costa Rica; cinematographer Adrian Biddle was able to capture pure beauty with lavish wide shots. One truly felt Columbus’ wonder of stumbling upon a land unlike his native Italy or adopted Spain filled with congested cities. Even in the Spanish monastery, the camera was able to hold tight shots that elicit the claustrophobia of a man that just wants to explore. One is left wanting for Biddle to create a travel documentary of all the places Columbus conquered, rather than a dramatic retelling. The humans certainly got in the way of an otherwise stunning visual expereince. 

Another (mostly) high point of the film was Vangelis’s music. At many points I felt the music did the acting for the film – letting us know very clearly when we should be mad, happy, or surprised. At some moments the music was out of place. Most memorable for me was the scene where Columbus (Gérard Depardieu) teaches Captain Méndez (Kevin Dunn) how to navigate by stars, the music pings and pops at key moments in a way reminiscent of a comic book. The sound track itself must make a beautiful and peaceful album on its own – rather than being the audience’s guide for emotions in the movie.

Now onto the bad. While the cast has some strong names, no one clearly owned their roles. The large international cast brought with them a variety of accents – very few matching the Spanish and Italian characters. Further, they brought with them less of a historic presence than a bucket of melancholy. Sigourney Weaver as Queen Isabella brought unnecessary sexual tension that leaves one confused, and the villainous Adrián de Moxica (played by Michael Wincott) had portrayed over the top villain in a film that otherwise white washes the cruelty on the European invaders. In one scene, Moxica runs from Columbus after starting a riot in the newly built city, only to jump to his death in an overly grandiose manner. Not only is this ahistorical (see Mark’s assessment for more), but it was portrayed in a near stone face manner that caused me to chuckle.   On the whole, the performances were not memorable to the point that I forgot some of the actors half-way through the movie.

And finally, the lowest point of the movie is the point you cannot recover from – the script. In her first English language script – and first feature length script in any language, Roselyne Bosch, writes an unclear, lengthy, and convoluted story. From the very first scene Mark and I were in disagreement as to whether Columbus was a child learning about the round Earth from his father, or teaching his own son about the globe. As the film continued, characters’ names and positions were unclear (I’m sure many people can make it to the end of the movie not knowing we learned we met Columbus’s two brothers). Further, the script begged the audience to know facts. I’m not talking about the truths of history (Mark will be describing that next) but the truth of nautical science. Early in the film, Columbus argues with the University of Salamanca  about how many leagues the ocean is. Without intimate knowledge of geography, I was left unclear who was more wrong (according to Google, Columbus was closer to modern estimates but still very far off). Later we see them dropping wood into the ocean – but it was never clear what they were doing. Lastly Bosch laid the themes on script, having characters proclaim messages like “Paradise and hell both can be earthly” and “Idealism and ambition are not incompatible.” Rather than allow the audience what to think, the filmmakers told them directly. Perhaps its a good thing because those messages did not come across on their own.

Rating: 22/50 Stars

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