Stars: Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn, Lourdes de Oliveira, Lea Garcia | Written by Marcel Camus, Vinicius de Moraes, Jacques Viot | Directed by Marcel Camus
Made in 1959 by the French filmmaker Marcel Camus, Black Orpheus is a Portuguese-language adaptation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Here it is relocated to Rio de Janeiro, during Carnaval, which gives the impression that the city is in perennial party mode.
Orfeu (Breno Mello) is an eager young musician who happens to greet Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) as she arrives in Rio for the first time. Both are in an awkward position. Orfeu is facing a marriage to Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), whom he doesn’t love. (He’d rather spend his money on a guitar than a wedding ring.) Eurydice is on the run from a stalker: a man dressed as Death.
It turns out Death has followed her to Rio. Orfeu chases him off, and soon he and Eurydice fall in love. Mira is not best pleased, but it won’t be until the great carnival itself that Eurydice, Mira and Death will have their showdown, and the story takes a tragic, symbolic, magical realist turn.
From the very beginning, as a marble statue blows apart to be replaced by samba dancers, it’s clear that this is a joyously irreverent film that entirely embraces – and idealises – the street culture of Brazil’s postcard city. The screen screams colour; if you’re sick of colour-graded modern movies then put this dazzling remaster into your Blu-ray player and feel your eyes burn.
Camus is intriguingly transposing the spirit of the contemporary French New Wave to this distant city, which would have appeared alien to many eyes at the time. The focus is determinedly street level, and it was from the street that Camus plucked non-actor Mello. He and Dawn represent possibly the prettiest star-cross’d lovers ever to grace the screen.
Location shooting is used throughout: the position of the poor favela, high above the city, is an ironic counterpoint which becomes central to the denouement, where horror and hope collide. And of course there is the music, so insistent and prevalent that it ceases to matter if its diegetic or not.
The results are electric, and the movie scooped the top “foreign language” award at the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, as well as winning the Palm d’Or at Cannes.
Black Orpheus is not without controversy. Despite being based on a Brazilian play and the cast being all-Brazilian bar one (Dawn was a dancer from Pittsburgh), it is a French film, not a Brazilian one. As such the perspective is that of the outsider. This can be an advantage, even if the question of ownership can never fully be resolved. Perhaps tellingly, Camus changed the title from a reference to place (“Orfeu da Conceição” alluding to a fictional district) to a title that hangs its coat on blackness.
But it’s the positive depiction of race, poverty, and the joy of music which ultimately wins out. Behind the more heavy-handed touchstones (there’s literally a guard dog named Cerberus), the universality of Black Orpheus is obvious. Besides, it’s a pleasure to watch even if one simply treats it as Romeo & Juliet with awesome drumming.
Extras include a feature-length, retrospective documentary from 2005; interviews form the time with Camus and Dawn; a documentary about the bossa nova sound popularised by the film; the original, extravagant four-minute trailer; and a fascinating cultural overview from film historian Robert Stam.
Black Orpheus is out now on Blu-ray from Criterion.