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Discovering Columbus

Had Christopher Columbus known what movies his discovery of the New World would someday spawn, he might have opted to stay in Spain.

The swashbuckling Christopher Columbus, which premiered during the dog days of summer, was politically incorrect, historically inaccurate and cinematically laughable.

The hypnotically handsome 1492: Conquest of Paradise

labors endlessly in an attempt to define the Genoa-born navigator as a product of his times by tracing three of his four trips to the New World. It is a breathtaking, though occasionally turgid, achievement.

At sea just long enough to capture a few mutinous rumblings, 1492

concentrates on Columbus' vision, his charming of the ruthless Queen Isabel, his acceptance of the Indians' culture and his disastrous relationship with the church and with Spain's nobility, who resented a foreigner being appointed governor of the New World.

All this, and more, is covered in director Ridley Scott's exhausting drama, meticulously researched and then embellished by screenwriter Roselyne Bosch.

1492 successfully situates Columbus in his historical milieu: at a time when academics couldn't determine the world's circumference; when the crown was banishing infidels from Spain; and when heretics and Jews were being burned at the stake. What 1492 fails to do is develop a compelling sense of character beyond its time line or any hint of the intimacy Columbus shared with his sons, brothers, mistress or friends.

Nevertheless, 1492 has the incomparable Gerard Depardieu as the Italian seaman sailing for the crown of Spain. Commanding in passion and presence, the French-accented Depardieu likely will become the definitive Columbus for years to come.

Depardieu has the bluster, the virility, the passion to play the sailor whose dreams drove him to stand against the church and persuade the crown to fund his expedition to find a westward route to Asia.

Depardieu also has the physical stature to hold his own amid director Scott's visual and aural onslaught: lavish processions, countless sunsets, innumerable vistas and a maddeningly obtrusive Vangelis soundtrack.

1492 is a studied, handsome but dramatically flawed epic. It makes Columbus neither a hero or a villain as it recounts more than two decades of his life, recreating the events and political forces that brought about his downfall and eventual return to Spain in chains.

The movie is narrated by Fernando (Lauren Dean), Columbus' illegitimate son. But Fernando is rarely with his father, so their bond seems tenuous, at best.

This is the curse of any sailor, and any dramatist attempting to portray a voyager whose brief visits home are separated by years.

1492 is most stirring when it dispels with pageantry for close personal encounters: Columbus persuading Queen Isabel (Sigourney Weaver) to fund his voyage by making a veiled reference to her beauty; Columbus sparring _ literally and figuratively _ with the crown's treasurer and chief adviser (Armand Assante); and Columbus attempting to quell a New World uprising initiated by a Spanish nobleman (Michael Wincott), who brutalizes the natives.

Scott, whose visual command occasionally is bent on excess, invents Exorcist Indians who hurl white bile when killed and a devastating Hurricane Exorcist.

These passages undermine the movie. 1492 needs legitimate drama to speed its pace _ and convey a broader sense of Columbus as a man ahead of his times.

MOVIE REVIEW

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1492: Conquest of Paradise

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Gerard Depardieu, Armand Assante, Sigourney Weaver, Angela Molina, Fernando Rey, Tcheky Karyo, Frank Langella, Michael Wincott, Loren Dean, Kevin Dunn, Kario Salem

Screenplay: Roselyne Bosch

Rating: PG-13; violence, nudity

Running time: 153 minutes

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