Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro)
Director – Marcel Camus, Screenplay – Marcel Camus & Jacques Viot, Based on the Musical Orfeu do Concercao by Antonio Carlos Jobim & Marcus Moraes, Producer – Sacha Gordine, Photography – Jean Bourgoin, Makeup – Jobim & Luis Bonfa, Art Direction – Viot. Production Company – Dispartfilm/Cinematografica Vera Cruz
Bruno Mello (Orpheus), Marpessa Dawn (Eurydice), Lea Garcia (Serafina), Lourdes de Oliveira (Mira), Jorge Dos Santos (Benedetto), Waldetar De Souza (Chico), Alexandro Constantino (Hermes)
The beautiful but innocent Eurydice arrives in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival Week. She is pursued by a sinister man in a skeleton mask whom she believes wants to kill her. She and the guitar-playing tram conductor Orpheus fall in love, Orpheus willingly dumping his pushy fiancee Mira to be with her. Eurydice is then accidentally electrocuted by the tram cables. The search for Eurydice’s body takes Orpheus to the monolithic Missing Persons Bureau and to a religious meeting where attempts are made to call her spirit back.
This Brazilian film transplants the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice amidst the Rio carnival with striking results. Comparisons inevitably arise between Black Orpheus/Orfeu Negro and Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus/Orphee (1950). (Cocteau released his sequel-of-sorts to Orphee, The Testament of Orpheus (1959), around the same time as this). Both Cocteau and Marcel Camus update the same story into modern surroundings yet tread entirely different routes in the telling – Cocteau’s adaptation was more of a sly intellectual/poetic metaphor that played on contemporary images, whereas Marcel Camus’s version is an earthy, ebullient Latin American celebration of life. The variance of the two approaches is something that surely demonstrates the versatility of the stories that myths tell.
Black Orpheus is an extraordinarily colourful and happy film. It bursts with energy and a life that sweeps one up into the sunny spirit and the vitality of the carnival dance. This film’s crime is that perhaps it is overly long, taking fully three-quarters of the running time before we enter the Underworld. Many of the scenes in the first three-quarters, particularly the low comedy relief of the running plot about Serafina, who is played by Lea Garcia in a manner that is eye-bulgingly OTT in its happiness, and her rather thick sailor lover, could have been dropped without any notice.
However, it is during the Underworld sequences that the film attains moments of considerable brilliance. Orpheus’s search for Eurydice takes him to the Missing Persons Department, which in a superbly Kafka-esque metaphor, is described as “eighteen floors of paper – but there are no lost people here.” In other modern interpolations, Cerberus becomes a guard dog. The most striking and radical of the updates is the recalling of Eurydice – which occurs at what seems a cross between a voodoo ceremony and a revivalist meeting where Orpheus is asked to sing – her spirit answers him telling him not to look back, but when he inevitably does look all that is talking to him is a woman possessed by Eurydice’s spirit. It is a stunning revision of the myth.
The final coda is genuinely touching – Orpheus carries Eurydice’s body away but a stone thrown by the jealous Mira knocks him over a cliff to his death, while back up on the cliff top the young child Benedetto takes Orpheus’s guitar and starts playing while his two young companions dance. It is an affecting reaffirmation of life the Latin American way – that despite tragedy the dance of life goes on.
The film was remade as the interesting Orfeu (1999), which updated and politicised the story, relocating it in the Brazilian slums amid drug lords, vigilante mob killings and police corruption. Oddly, while this is an interesting film, it drops the journey into the underworld and contains no fantastic elements.