Black Orpheus (1959)

Nov 6, 2000
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:soundtrack, cinematography, costumes, unusual setting

Cons:comic relief, story has holes

The surprise sensation at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, Black Orpheus won the prestigious Golden Palm award. It also won an Academy Award, for Best Foreign Language Film.

Black Orpheus was a low budget film with an amateur cast. But it had a marvelous samba score, by Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim. The intoxicating, pulsating beat was driven by multiple percussionists playing bongos. The film also introduced the Bossa Nova, an energetic, provocative dance that became a fad in the West.

Black Orpheus was filmed in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, by French director Marcel Camus. Although Camus had been an assistant director for several years, it was only his second film as a principal director. He was unable to follow up on his success, and most of his later films are obscure.

The story has its origins in the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. French writer/director Jean Cocteau made an acclaimed film version of the legend, Orpheus (1949). This in turn was adapted into a Brazilian setting by Rio-born author Vinicius de Moraes in his play "Orfeu da Conceicao". Camus used this as the basis of his screenplay.

The lead actress playing Eurydice, Marpessa Dawn, was born in Philadelphia. The other roles were cast with Brazilians. The story has country girl Eurydice visiting her cousin Serafina (Lea Garcia) in Rio. She is young and beautiful, and catches the eye of popular local entertainer Orpheus (Breno Mello). But the romance between Orpheus and Eurydice is threatened by the jealousy of Orpheus' fiancee Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira) and a mysterious, stalking Carnival attendee costumed as Death (Ademar Da Silva).

Comic relief is provided by several small children who worship Orpheus, and by the 'playfully' sadomasochistic relationship between mischievous Serafina and her lover Chico (Waldetar de Souza). Many story elements are unexplained, such as why is Death pursuing Eurydice, why does she attend Carnival when Death is certain to re-appear, and why she flees from the crowds rather than seeking their help. It seems objectionable when Mira is throwing rocks at Orpheus, and that Orpheus allows Mira to buy her own engagement ring when he has little interest in marrying her.

Black Orpheus has been somewhat overrated because of its unusual insight into an 'exotic' culture. As with Once Were Warriors, The Gods Must Be Crazy, and Nanook of the North, the viewer has a sudden realization that there are valid alternatives to the Western cultural model. There is a strong sense of family and community. The people are healthy and happy, and unaware of their 'deprivation'. They don't have to endure Jerry Springer and reruns of "Full House" either, but I digress.

Despite its success in the West, Black Orpheus was not popular in Brazil. The depiction of Rio as a predominantly black samba street party was considered misleading. It didn't help matters that in the film, the Carnival ends when a squad of white policemen carrying billy clubs arrives to disperse the crowd and arrest stragglers. Another scene suggests that the government avoids solving societal problems by producing immense and useless stacks of paperwork.

However, a recent remake of the film, Orfeu (1999), was written and directed by Brazilians and received multiple awards and nominations at the Grand Premio Cinema Brasil. (57/100)

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