Black Orpheus (Orfeo Negro, 1959)

Director: Marcel Camus

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I always like it when awarding organizations get it right, and when the Big Three of the Western film world—AMPAS, the Golden Globes, and the Cannes Film Festival—named Black Orpheus Best Foreign-Language Film, Best Foreign Film, and Palme d’Or winner, respectively, they most certainly got it right. This Brazilian/French/Italian coproduction reimagines the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a doomed romance between descendents of freed black slaves in the hillside favelas (shantytowns) surrounding Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. In doing so, Black Orpheus connects this pre-Christian story with the Christian Passion in a place watched over by a giant figure of Christ.

The title card shows a Greek frieze from antiquity into which the figures of Orpheus and Eurydice have been chiseled. Then we are plunged immediately into a favela readying itself for Carnival. Musicians in bright, satin costumes create a pulsing African beat to which the townspeople sway, even women carrying large bundles of laundry on their heads. Soon the music gives way to the quieter rhythms of village life, scored by Luiz Bonfá—specifically, “Manhã de Carnaval,” which becomes the running theme song of the movie. We meet a smiling Serafina (Léa Garcia) watching two boys, Benedito (Jorge dos Santos) and Zeca (Aurino Cassiano), flying kites. The arrival of a streetcar pulls us into the plot.

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Streetcar driver Orfeo (Breno Mello) conveys passengers, including the young and beautiful Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), into town. Orfeo is a natural flirt who has left a string of lovers all over town, though one of them, Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), has pushed him aggressively into a promise of marriage. Filmic love triangles are plentiful, but one member of the triangle usually knows at some level that a grand passion is in the offing. I am reminded of Gene Kelly as he pursues a reluctant, then compliant Leslie Caron in An American in Paris. Black Orpheus confounds this formula by having Orfeo flirt with and then dismiss Eurydice as too young; for her part, Eurydice is single-minded in her desire to get to cousin Serafina’s home, and Orfeo is an unwelcome roadblock.

Orfeo returns to his home, which adjoins Serafina’s, and his menagerie of animals—a reference to Orpheus’ ability to charm all the beasts with his music. He has gotten his precious guitar out of hock in time to play at the Carnival festivities. Zeca brings Benedito to Orfeo, claiming that Orfeo makes the sun rise with his songs. Benedito asks Orfeo what songs he plays—are they religious? No, says Orfeo, “I just make them up.” He then starts to improvise a song, the aforementioned “Manhã de Carnaval,” improvising lyrics about the rising of the sun and love. Eurydice hears the song, and in keeping with the Orpheus myth, is enchanted. When Orfeo discovers that she is now his next-door neighbor, he tries to seduce her. She runs. When he catches up with her, she is crying. “I was attracted to the song,” she says. Orfeo—a handsome and virile man—is not accustomed to women appreciating his creative inner life, and his heart is touched.

Sadly, Eurydice is a troubled young woman. She has run away from home; both she and Serafina know that if her guardian finds her, he could kill her. Eurydice has an additional worry right where she is. Previously, when Mira and Orfeo went to the marriage license bureau, a clerk, jokingly referring to the myth, says “Orfeo loves Eurydice,” without knowing there really is a Eurydice in town. Mira has noticed Orfeo’s transfer of affection and vows to kill Eurydice.

The vital heart of Afro-Brazilian culture is on display in this sweetly intense film. There isn’t a musical note or drumbeat struck that there isn’t also a swaying or dancing group of people responding. Although young, Eurydice comfortably allows the music to reach inside her. She and Orfeo dance with pleasure in a scene that communicates love of life rather than merely sexual or romantic intrigue. We’ve seen love dances before—again, I’m reminded of An American in Paris—but in Western films, the dances always tell the story. In this film, the dance is part of the story, part of a life in which both women and men find pleasure and expression. There’s no need for a Gene Kelly trying to persuade men that dancing is macho. How foolish this would seem to these Brazilians.

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The film reaches a peak during the actual Carnival parade. Orfeo, dressed in gold like a Greek god, is the major domo of his town’s dance crewe whose theme is the rising sun and who dress rather ironically in colonial garb. During this celebration that ushers in a period of sacrifice leading up to Easter, Orfeo and Eurydice will enact another such sacrifice. Eurydice has seen the figure of a man dressed as Death (Ademar Da Silva) before the parade; frightened, she runs to Orfeo, who promises to protect her always. During the parade, Eurydice has taken Serafina’s place; veiled, she can dance with Orfeo without Mira being the wiser.

Unfortunately, Serafina and her dumb boyfriend can’t resist coming to the parade, and Serafina calls to Eurydice. Both Mira and Death, who has been watching Eurydice, take after her, but only Death manages to separate her from the crowd. In the empty trolley depot, they play a truly frightening cat-and-mouse game, moving in the troughs under the tracks and above the ground on the trestle structures, Death glowing red with menace. Orfeo reaches them; Eurydice yells his name. He throws a switch for more light, but only succeeds in electrocuting his beloved.

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The descent of Orpheus into Hell is handled in a truly wonderful way here. An elderly streetcar conductor named Hermes (the messenger) takes Orfeo to the Bureau of Missing Persons (guarded, of course, by a dog named Cerebus), a building empty save for a janitor sweeping up miles of paper recording missing persons who are never found. Again, this seems a subtle reference to the Sacrifice of the Cross by which all humanity is saved. However, Orfeo seeks Eurydice in a pre-Christian ceremony in which spirits possess the singers and dancers. At Hermes’ urging, Orfeo joins in the singing, and Eurydice’s voice comes to him. He wants to see her, but she warns him not to turn around to view the source of the voice, or he will lose her forever. Impetuous, he disobeys her and is told by the old woman whom Eurydice has used as a vessel that she is lost to him forever.

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Orfeo insists on seeing Eurydice, and in a beautifully shot and symbolic scene, descends a spiral staircase to the morgue. In an unnecessarily comic scene involving a morgue worker with a cold, he finds Eurydice, claims her body, and lets her “lead” him wherever she will. He walks with her body up a bluff, thanking Eurydice for taking him on a beautiful path surrounded by flowers. He will be met on this path by a furious Mira, who will decide his fate. The tragedy played out, life renews itself as Benedicto, Zeca, and a very young girl dance to Bonfá ‘s “Samba de Orfeo” and wait for the sun to rise.

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The fabric of one corner of Brazilian life is on full display in Black Orpheus, including actual footage of Carnival that seems to have been shot by Camus. Camus has a spectacular eye for the majesty that is Rio, utilizing the natural beauty to accent and lend power to this timeless love story. At the same time, comic interludes of varying degrees of success reminded me of Shakespeare’s construction of tragedies. Music, both primitive and contemporary, fill this film; besides Bonfá, Antonio Carlos Jobim contributed music, including the now classic “A Felicidade.”

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Finally, we have the sensitive lovers themselves. Breno Mello was a soccer star appearing in his first film; while he and the rest of the nonprofessional cast are sometimes awkward, Mello’s heartbreak over the loss of Eurydice is deeply touching. Marpessa Dawn, an American dancer with acting experience, is the shining light of this film. She manages to be a real person despite the whole weight of cinematic love stories pressing in on her. In a rather touching, though coincidental coda to this film, Mello died this past July, and Dawn followed only six weeks later.

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During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the hubby was friends with Marpessa when they both lived in Denver. He said she had a serenity and confidence that drew people to her. He did not know she starred in Black Orpheus, and had never seen it. One week, it was playing at the Ogden, and Marpessa told him about it and agreed to meet him for the screening. The house was packed, and the hubby couldn’t find her. Finally, in the dark, he called, “Marpessa, are you there?” A disembodied voice called back, “I’m here.” When he told me this story, I immediately said, “You were Orpheus!”

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    7th/12/2008 to 9:14 pm

    I saw this ages ago on PBS, back in the early, early years of my budding cinephilia. I loved it but haven’t seen it since and remember little. However, reading this brought a lot of it back and I’m definitely going to put it on my list of movies to see soon. Thanks for the reminder.
    And I love the closing story with hubby. He was her friend but didn’t know about Black Orpheus. Did she purposely keep it a secret from him? I mean, for myself, one of the first things I would mention is, “Oh by the way, I starred in an internationally acclaimed film that won top honors at festivals around the world, including Cannes and the Academy Awards. And what do you do for a living?”

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/12/2008 to 9:29 pm

    The hubby is just standing here laughing at your comment. He has no reply. But I asked him, and he said she brought it up when it was relevant–when the film was showing in town. They met through an interest in poetry, and he said she was carrying on a full life devoted at that point to poetry and the women’s movement.
    The film came out on a Criterion DVD in 2007, color restored to its original richness. Now is definitely the time to revisit it.

  • Elena Schrank spoke:
    31st/01/2009 to 9:58 pm

    One of my favorites still.

  • James Ainsworth spoke:
    20th/04/2009 to 11:36 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this special story – it means a lot to me… Black Orpheus has been my favorite film of all time ever since I first saw it when I was a student at Cornell University in 1978. I just found out today that Marpessa Dawn and Breno Mello passed away last year, and I was doing some Googling on Marpessa and I found the image result of that dry cleaners note. Being from Denver, I think I may have been at that screening at the Ogden sometime in the early 80s. I had no idea she lived here at one time! I love the quote she scribbled… I bought the DVD version, and it is amazing to watch on my plasma big screen TV. The soundtrack is superb, and Marpessa actually sings a version of “Manha da Carnival” that stunningly beautiful, the best song on the soundtrack, but it never made it into the movie… I would like to thank you for making me feel another special connection to this amazing movie.
    If I could add one note here, we might not have Barack Obama had it not been for “Black Orpheus.” His mother saw the movie when it came out in 1959 and she was amazed by the images. The movie opened her mind to other races and cultures, and later she ended up dating Barack Obama, Sr. who was from Africa… She took Obama the to see it and some time when he was a young adult, and he didn’t like it (he thought the images were stereotypical) and at one point thought about walking out, but didn’t want to offend his mother. But he realized that there was a part of his mother who was still this young naive woman from Kansas, who was captivated by the the dark, exotic images of the people in that movie…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/04/2009 to 8:15 am

    James – Isn’t it wonderful that people can be brought together over something as everyday as a movie? I have always been slightly jealous of the hubby for being able to see this amazing, highly honored film with one of its luminous stars. What a memory! I’m very pleased you connected so positively with it.

  • Orville Springs spoke:
    2nd/05/2009 to 2:06 pm

    “Sadness has no end Happiness does… The happiness of the poor man seems to be the grand illusion of carnival. Folks work all year for one moment of a dream to realize the fantasy of a king or a pirate or gardener — but it all comes to an end on Ash Wednesday.” Black Orpheus Song lyric by Vincius de Moraes

  • storm spoke:
    3rd/08/2009 to 8:27 am

    I saw this movie at age 8,in 1971 when b/w television was all there was in NZ,with only one channel.I remember being deeply influenced and emotionally touched by this movie.I learnt to play guitar at this age.I taught myself to play by ear and discovered my own style and chords learning to play along.when i play these songs my freinds, they ask me who what and where did those songs originate..?What can i say, but share the magic that lives 4eva!!When i read about the many lives this movie and soundtrack so graciously affected i feel very special to be spiritually connected to the universal language of love and life through music.my story is one that is woven into this fabric called HEART & SOUL.LIFE & DEATH and SPRIT!Thank you all to those other people who shared their own personal stories.We are all one family in this life.Godbless.no reira,te hunga wairua kia koutou, tatou te hunga ora e noho nei..ake ake amene.

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