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.

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