Black Orpheus (1959) is a Brazilian movie by a French director Marcel Camus.This movie had a great swirl of percussive music, glowing and colorful winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
This story is an adaptation of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in the modern context of a favela in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval. The film was an international co-production between production companies in Brazil, France and Italy. The film sets the Orpheus myth in the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. Orpheus is a streetcar conductor who makes such beautiful music that it’s said he makes the sun rise. Eurydice is a country girl who has fled to Rio because a man is stalking her and threatening her life. That man, of course, is Death, and after Orpheus and Eurydice fall in love, they must keep their appointment with Death, with Orpheus descending into the Underworld to attempt to rescue Eurydice.
The film begins with the excitement for the carnival and its preparation. The children dance, the women, sexy and uninhibited, dance as they go about their daily activities. Into this festive atmosphere comes the shy Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) who has fled her village to visit her cousin Serafine (Lea Garcia) in fear of a stalker who wants to kill her. She rides to the end of the train line and meets the handsome Orpheus (Breno Mello), the streetcar conductor and musician. Eurydice’s cousin is happy to see her, though she’s expecting to be joined shortly by her boyfriend Chico (Waldemar de Souza). Orpheus is engaged to the slender, vivacious Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira) who wants to get a marriage license that very day
When the clerk at the courthouse hears Orpheus’s name, he jokingly asks if Mira is Eurydice. Not knowing the story, Mira becomes jealous and wants to know who she is. Afterward, Mira insists on getting an engagement ring. Though Orpheus has just been paid, he would rather use his money to get his guitar out of the pawn shop for the carnival. Mira finally offers to loan Orpheus the money to buy her ring. She buys the ring; he gets his guitar. Orpheus meets Eurydice again as he stays near the shack of her cousin. It is love at first sight. Later, during the carnival, wearing Sarafina’s costume, Eurydice dances a provocative samba with Orpheus. Mira enraged when her rival is unmasked and Eurydice is once again stalked by Death. The mythology then plays out as it is destined
‘Black Orpheus’ relied on unknowns for the main characters. Breno Mello makes a handsome, virile Orpheus who glistens when covered with sweat, but he performs the role more as a dancer than as an actor trying to show a man in love. Conversely, the girl who plays Eurydice is an American dancer, Marpessa Dawn, and she conveys more forthright emotions. Her pretty, frank face and a gentle manner that suggest absolute innocence gather an aura of wistfulness about her that filters down into a melancholy mood.
The real genius of Black Orpheus lies in the people who live on the side of the cliffs overlooking the harbor at Rio. It is their energy that prevails. The film pulsates with intoxicating samba music, storm of colors and costumes and frenzied carnival dancing depicting the spectacular vitality of life. The music that runs through Black Orpheus like a river is authentically native, and the rampant intoxication of the film’s characters is not feigned but is actually a manifestation of an entire culture exulting in its own self-expression.
And yet there is the constant reality of death in this film. And it strikes in way we cannot comprehend, fatalistically, and we are helpless to do anything about it. 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 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; director Camus’ obvious love for Rio and its people; and the joyous, rapturous, unforgettable musical
The final scene is beautiful. Orpheus sings, a new Orpheus perhaps, and the sun rises again, and a little girl in white, looking like Eurydice in miniature, begins to dance as the little boy Orpheus plays his guitar, telling us that time has come round again.
Black Orpheus was made with lot of affection by the director Camus. It’s a rhapsody on celluloid and offers a feast with its Rio de Janeiro carnival, intoxicating samba music, frenzied dancing and violent costumes. It is bound to be an energizing treat to any film viewer. This movie was a big box office success. But for film lovers around the world, the beauty, the music, and the universal and mythic qualities of Black Orpheus remain indelible half a century after it was made.
- Director: Marcel Camus
- Producer: Sacha Gordine
- Screenplay: Jacques Viot, Marcel Camus, based on the play Orfeu da Conceio by Vinicius de Moraes
- Cinematography: Jean Bourgoin
- Editor: Andree Feix
- Music: Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonf
- Cast: Breno Mello (Orfeo), Marpessa Dawn (Eurydice), Lourdes de Oliveira (Mira), Lea Garcia (Serafina), Ademar Da Silva (Death), Alexandro Constantino (Hermes), Waldemar De Souza (Chico), Jorge Dos Santos (Benedito), Aurino Cassiano (Zeca).
- Release dates of 12 June 1959 (France)
- Running time of 107 minutes
- Country: Brazil, France & Italy
- Language: Portuguese