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Film review: 1492: Conquest of Paradise

What a disappointment!

After the dreadful "Christopher Columbus" film that played in August, how could audiences not look forward to Ridley Scott's version, "1492: Conquest of Paradise," appropriately opening just prior to Columbus Day?

Scott, the accomplished director of "Alien," "Blade Runner" and "Thelma & Louise," among others, has imbued this film with great visual style, and the sets, costumes and general atmosphere are fascinating. In fact, there is much to recommend on a technical level. But "1492" is, unfortunately, plagued with narrative problems that make it a less than successful cinematic voyage.

The great French actor Gerard Depardieu is perfectly cast as Columbus, played here as a passionate but sensitive explorer whose disdain for the accepted brutality of the 15th century brings his ultimate downfall.

The Columbus of "1492" is a tragic figure, and the film seems to foretell his troubles early on. We meet the Italian explorer after he has tried for seven years to obtain financing for a voyage that he believes will lead to a new route to China. Eventually, while living in a monastery in Spain, he is granted an audience with Queen Isabella (Sigourney Weaver), who agrees to pay for the trip.

The voyage itself is briefly depicted as a torturous journey, and when Columbus' three ships land in their new paradise they meet up with friendly, if cautious, natives as the crew revels in the natural beauty of their surroundings.

Columbus returns triumphantly to Spain and talks the queen into an even larger expedition, to include building a city on the islands and further exploration of surrounding areas as the crew gathers gold.

But Columbus' lack of respect for nobility and his inability to find a substantial amount of gold leads to violence, which gives way to a war between the natives and the Spanish interlopers.

Again, Columbus returns to Spain, this time in disgrace. He is imprisoned and ultimately finds others taking credit for his discoveries.

This is a complex story of a highly complex character, and it would seem to be ideal for the kind of epic storytelling that makes for great movies. But "1492" becomes unwieldly as Scott has trouble maintaining a balance between the film's narrative structure and his penchant for relying on long, lingering shots of imagery that soon lapse into a dull conceit. The latter in particular underminds the film's narrative drive, often slowing it to a snail's pace.

Worse, the dialogue is very difficult to understand in places. There is a distracting mix of accents here. Depardieu is obviously uncomfortable spouting English but even Armand Assante, as Queen Isabella's treasurer, has lines that are hard to understand.

Rated PG-13, which seems rather tame considering the amount of violence and gore here (there is also some profanity and nudity), "1492" is the season's biggest disappointment so far.