Orpheus in the Rio Underworld

Black Orpheus (Criterion)

Shot in Rio de Janeiro by a French director, adapting a Brazilian playwright’s take on a Greek myth, with a Brazilian cast and a non-stop beat of Brazilian percussion and Bossa Nova music, the 1959 Black Orpheus offered a look at Brazil’s culture far different from the clichés seen in Hollywood’s South American romantic fantasies. This showed poor black Brazilians who lived in the shacks in the poor favelas high above the more affluent Rio, a part of the city that Brazil’s government would have preferred to keep the rest of the world from seeing.


This was the world Orson Welles hoped to show in It’s All True, the ambitious project that was cancelled before it had barely begun. But where Welles was determined to show the poverty as well as the exoticism of Carnival, this portrait created its own fantasy of the favelas, all joy and communal idealism and color. It’s a far cry from the Cinema Novo films that more politically motivated directors like Glauber Rocha made in the sixties, and a decidedly romanticized portrait of slum life that films like City of God have put to rest in the past decade. And yet knowing that this is an exoticized portrait of Third World peasants by a European director doesn’t stop me from appreciating the energy and music and dance presented by director Marcel Camus and his cast (a mix of stage actors, musicians and non-professionals) and crew, or from enjoying the fantasy that is on screen.

Adapted from the play “Orfeu do Carnaval” by Brazillian author Vinicius de Moraes, Black Orpheus plays out the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with a black cast in the poor favelas high above the more affluent Rio and through the music and energy and culture of Carnival, where the worlds come together to dance and play and celebrate. In this incarnation, Orfeu (the charming Breno Mello) is a streetcar conductor, his Eurydice (the American-born Marpessa Dawn) an innocent country girl come to the city to flee a mysterious stranger (who appears at Carnival in a death mask), and Orfeu’s trip through the underworld a journey through a maze of hospitals corridors, police station bureaucracy (a haunting vision of empty halls and rooms filled with papers blowing into oblivion) and strange native churches. The vibrant color of the costumes and settings and the energetic beat of the music (in part written and performed by the great Antonio Carlos Jobim) and dance creates an intoxicating atmosphere and director Marcel Camus shoots on location at the real carnival, which adds an element of authenticity and spectacle to the fantastical elements of the tale. This earthy fable won both the Palme d’Or and the Academy Award for best foreign-language film and became one of the most popular foreign films of its day. Fifty years later it is more obviously a European romanticized look at an impoverished Brazilian culture, but the music is infectious, the color photography beautiful and the exotic world just as intoxicating.

Previously available in the no-frills “Essential Art House” series, it now gets a deluxe release in a newly remastered edition on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion. There’s a brief section where the color pulsates into red for a few seconds, possibly an issue with unstable negative elements, but otherwise it is a strong, solid image with brilliant color. The Eastmancolor photography is nothing like the super-saturated hues of the Jack Cardiff Technicolor films of earlier Criterion and Kino Blu-ray releases (like The Red Shoes and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman). This is more earthy and natural, as vivid as the Technicolor shades but in sun-drenched primary colors that blossom on screen as if alive, responsive to the land and the sun as well as the costumes of Carnival, while the lighting in the night shoots forgo realism to remain as responsive to the color against the dark of the night.

Both the DVD and Blu-ray editions feature the feature-length French documentary “Looking For Black Orpheus” from 2005, which revisits the locations, talks to many of the collaborators and discusses the real-life culture of dance, music and poverty of Rio and the favelas, plus new interview featurettes. Gary Giddins and Ruy Castro discuss the music of the film and the origins of Bossa Nova in “Black Orpheus and That Bossa Nova Sound,” film scholar and historian Robert Stam takes on the contrast between European and Brazilian influences in the film in “Revisiting Black Orpheus,” and there are brief archival interviews with director Marcel Camus and star Marpessa Dawn, plus a booklet with an essay by Michael Atkinson. As always, Criterion prices the DVD and Blu-ray at the same suggested retail price, though prices may vary depending on the merchant.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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