A retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, set during the time of the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, was warmly received when it appeared in 1959, by audiences and critics alike – won the Golden Palm at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival and an Academy Award as best foreign language film.
Directed by Marcel Camus, a professor of painting and sculpture before breaking into film, whose work is characterized by a lyricism, which, was central to his films in the 1950s and 1960s such as ‘Fugitive in Saigon’, Love in the Night’ and of course ‘Black Orpheus’.
Bursting with the energy, color, and rhythms of the Carnival the film is a few steps removed from the original myth as it was based on a play by Brazilian writer Vinicius de Moraes, which itself was based on the 1949 film by Jean Cocteau, which was adapted from the Greek myth.
The casting is interesting Orfeo (Breno Mello), a handsome, full-of-life, yet easy going, guitar strumming streetcar conductor – in real life an athlete and footballer. His low-paying job makes him seemingly the most employed man in his whole neighborhood, a slum of epic squalor overlooking the city. He is widely known for his dancing as well as his singing and guitar playing – as well as being a renowned womanizer!
As an irony of casting, the actress who played Eurydice, Marpessa Dawn, [Camus\s real life wife] was a professional imported from Pennsylvania while the entire rest of the cast were amateurs and Brazilian natives. Camus shot the film on a very small budget and the naturalness of the amateurs can be experienced as adding to the film’s wild energy.
Camus was a committed realist, for political reasons, and the magic and spirit conjuring obviously made him aware that he might seem insufficiently aware of or sympathetic toward the sufferings of the poor in the poor favelas.
Discussions of authenticity are always a little uncomfortable and this film des invite controversy when it plays with lazy watermelon seeking males and sultry women. In its native Brazil where some object to the depiction of their country as being a non-stop party!
The film does however capture the sense of the seductiveness and danger of the dance, the music, and the spectacular cliff-top scenery of Rio.
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 who wrote ‘The Girl From Ipanema’), while Jean Bourgoin's cinematography is a really vibrant technicolor throughout. The colors are at least as bright as The Red Shoes. The dance also 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.
Essentially it is an arbitrary fable of love foiled in the midst of gaiety, not very well played by its main performers and therefore lacking in real emotional punch. The beat draws its characters along a cycle of life and death as it repeats a story with timeless resonance situated in a particular time and place.
The film introduced North America and Europe to the wondrous rhythms of Bossa Nova and that remains an enduring legacy. 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 from the first frame to the last.