Winner of the the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or as well as the Academy, Golden Globe and BAFTA awards for Best Foreign Language Film, the 1959 Brazilian movie Orfeu Negro or Black Orpheus [based on the 1956 musical stage play Orfeu da Conceição (Orpheus of the Conception) by Brazilian writer Vinicius de Moraes] situated the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in modern-day Rio de Janiero during the annual Carnival festivities.
The legendary Orpheus – musician, poet and prophet – was known to charm all living beings (even stones) with his music and tried to bring back his wife Eurydice (a nymph or daughter of Apollo – god of music, sun, etc.) from the underworld. This story has many universal parallels, among them the Japanese myth of Izanagi and Izanami, the Mayan myth of Itzamna and Ixchel, the Indian myth of Savitri and Satyavan and the Akkadian/Sumerian myth of Inanna‘s descent to the underworld.
The Portuguese-language Black Orpheus, an international co-production between Brazil, France and Italy, was directed by French filmmaker Marcel Camus and starred Breno Mello (a Brazilian athlete and actor) and Marpessa Dawn (a Pittsburgh-born actress of Afrian-American and Filipino heritage) in the lead roles. An article on the film on a website run by the Brown University Library states that:
When Black Orpheus was released internationally in 1959, it seemed to inject a dose of color and life into the grey landscape of previous art films, which had been dreary depictions of life in Germany, France, Japan, or Italy. It was the first internationally acclaimed film to take place entirely in a favela [Brazilian slum in an urban area], with an all-black Brazilian cast (one of the leads was of mixed race, and from Pittsburg, though this was rarely remarked upon), featuring a soundtrack by famous Brazilian singers Antônio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá, who pioneered the new style of Bossa Nova [literally “new trend”, fusion of samba and jazz].
Here Orpheus is a member of a samba school and streetcar conductor in Rio, unhappily engaged to a woman called Mira. Eurydice, a simple country girl, arrives in the city to stay with her cousin Serafina. She is hiding from a strange figure – Death personified in a skeleton costume – whom, she is certain, wants to kill her. Eurydice meets Orpheus (who is Serafina’s neighbour) and they soon fall in love. In the hustle and bustle of the carnival, Orpheus and Eurydice struggle to remain together with Mira on one side and Death on the other. After Eurydice is killed accidentally, Orpheus must pass through bureaucratic spaces and strange rituals in the hope of summoning her spirit. In an essay, the American film critic David Ehrenstein explains:
The figure of Death that pursues Eurydice through the streets of Rio could be the literal personification of fate—or the sort of everyday maniac found on the streets of any major city. Likewise, Eurydice’s death from a streetcar cable is a neat transposition of the original legend in which she died from a serpent’s bite on her leg. Best of all is the film’s climax, in which Orpheus visits the underworld—here represented by Rio’s Bureau of Missing Persons—and a Macumba [pertaining to local, non-Abrahamic Brazilian religions] ceremony in which he tries to make contact with his dead love. As in the legend, the story of the film ends on an unhappy note. Still this nominally sad conclusion is undercut by the spirit of the largely unprofessional cast (Breno Mello was a champion soccer player, Marpessa Dawn a dancer from Pittsburgh); director Camus’ obvious love for Rio and its people; and the joyous, rapturous, unforgettable musical score.
Despite many merits, Black Orpheus was also criticised for its exaggerated exoticism and lack of class consciousness. In Directory of World Cinema: Brazil (2014), the British film critic Scott Jordan Harris has written that “while for many outside Brazil the film provided a beguiling image of the country, for many inside it Black Orpheus seemed a flawed and inauthentic representation of their nation.”
Watch a trailer with English subtitles below. You can watch the same video in higher quality here.
Brazil: Five Centuries of Change (2009) by Thomas E. Skidmore