Director: Marcel Camus
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!”