film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Black Orpheus (1959)

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Sometimes the films I see have been the subject of critical deep-dives or scholarly essays, either because of the subject matter or the artistic impact. I tend not to read any of these until after I’ve seen the film – after all, those essays didn’t exist when the film was first released, and it lets me react to a film on its own merits (for good or ill). So it wasn’t until after the fact that I realized that this was perhaps a truly unique film to watch in the days when Critical Race Theory is a going concern.

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As the name suggests, this is an adaptation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridyce set in the favelas of 1950s Rio de Janeiro. Orfeo (Breno Mello) is a trolley driver by day and musician by night, while Euridyce (Marpessa Dawn) is a new arrival from the country, come to stay with her cousin Serafina (Léa Garcia) to flee a mysterious stalker (Adhemar da Silva). It’s a couple days before the Brazillian Carnaval, and Orfeo, Serafina and Orfeo’s fiancée Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira) are all representing their local samba school in the parade – Serafina drafts Euridyce into the fray as well, and Orfeo quickly has his head turned by the shy, pretty stranger. This upsets Mira, of course – and it also looks like Euridyce’s stalker has somehow followed her to Rio. So Serafina loans Eurydice her own costume, which conveniently has a heavy veil, so Euridyce can dance in her place and stay under Orfeo’s protection (and so Serafina can stay home and canoodle with her sailor boyfriend Chico [Waldemar De Souza], who’s in town on shore leave for a couple days).

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But both Mira and the stalker find her out, and after a desperate chase into the trolley yard, Eurydice is killed. Orfeo doesn’t quite want to believe she’s gone, though, and makes a desperate visit to the local hospitals and the police station, searching for her. A janitor finds him wandering around the abandoned missing-persons section, and says he may know where Orfeo can find Euridyce – and leads him to a Macumba group meeting that night. If Orfeo is lucky, and follows the rules, he may just be able to get Euridyce back from the spirit world…

I mean, it’s Orpheus and Euridyce, you know the story.

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When you’re seeing a retelling of such a familiar story, the fun is seeing how the various trappings deal with the different details – it’s a Macumba group instead of the underworld, Orfeo is a guitar player and composer with near-mythic status amongst the kids in the favela, Mira is crazy enough to be one of the Bacchantes towards the end…there are some details that felt a little too on-the-nose (the watchdog outside the Macumba church is literally named “Cerberus“, for instance), but these were few and far between. Director Marcel Camus seems to have leaned most heavily on the color and spectacle of Carnaval itself to carry the day – sometimes even giving the acting itself short shrift. Breno Mello wasn’t even an actor when he was cast as Orfeo – he was a soccer player who Camus felt looked sufficiently attractive. Fortunately his role is simple enough, and the costumes and color and music and action distracting enough. And other actors’ performances also bolster Mello’s work; Marpessa Dawn was an actress herself, and there are some lengthy bits of comic schtick with Serafina and Chico that amuse. But this really isn’t “about” Orfeo and Euridyce so much as it’s “about” seeing the dazzle and flash of Carnaval.

And that’s the bit that bothered many Brazilians at the time of the film’s release, and which has been the focus of many articles since. For many international filmgoers, this was their first real look at Brazil – and it certainly would have captured more attention than did the earlier Limite. But the Brazil it depicts is a fun and colorful and exotic one, with people dancing in the streets and saucy women and jovial merchants and weird spooky rituals. The actual favelas were a good deal dirtier, grittier and more cramped than in the film, which makes them look like a tiny-house development perched on a hillside with killer ocean views.

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It was all a sort of fairy tale, in short; which very well have been Camus’ intent, to go a little fantastical with an adaptation of a myth. But many Brazilians, then and since, have bristled that that was what people thought Brazil looked like all the time, and it lead to a sort of exoticism white visitors would come to expect when they came to Brazil. Some non-Brazilians of color even point to Black Orpheus as the root of some fetishizing of non-whites in general; there’s a passage from Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams From My Father where he attends a screening of Black Orpheus with his mother, and realizes that her having seen it as a young woman left her with an exoticized image of non-white men – which in turn lead to her falling in love with his father. Which he admits left him pretty uneasy at the time.

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And that’s something I’ve thought about a little since watching the film. I’d noticed that it was kind of flashy and pretty and colorful and fun – the Technicolor in this gets put to excellent use, I tell you what. And this is going to sound defensive – but I don’t believe I ever assumed that this was anything but a fairy tale in the first place, so I seem to have avoided that trap. I mean, all films about a place that depict that place go for the most eye-catching tropes; every film about New York City looks like certain blocks in Manhattan, and not like my own neighborhood at all. Every film about New Orleans focuses on Bourbon Street (especially if the film is set during Mardi Gras, but often even if it isn’t). Every film about Paris is set in a place where you can see the Eiffel Tower out the window, every film about London has Big Ben in it, and on and on. Film has always dealt in the fantastical and polished-up depiction of a place, and this is no different. If any viewers came away from Black Orpheus thinking that Brazilians were all happy residents of charming little houses and regularly danced at the drop of a hat, I would argue that this says more about the viewers themselves than it does about the film.

Fortunately, though, Brazilian irritation at Black Orpheus helped to fuel a new homegrown film scene in Brazil, one which drew inspiration from Italian neo-realism and which dealt with weightier topics. I’ll be seeing more of that work in the months ahead.

1 thought on “Black Orpheus (1959)”

  1. Well, it was that technicolour bonanza that I found attractive about this movie, while the story itself is too hung up on following the myth.
    Sure, Rio looked nothing like this when I was there but I did recognise the congeniality of the people.


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