In an early moment of Marcel Camus’s 1959 classic Black Orpheus a gorgeous and tempestuous young woman steps out of the office of the justice of the peace and onto the Rio de Janeiro street and is immersed in the throbbing rhythm of Carnival and Bossa Nova. Instantly, she is dancing. It is an astonishing, shimmering, ecstatic movement of incalculable exuberance. She resembles nothing so much as a flame in a purple dress. Her dance is about beauty, history, Africa, sex, being young and being a woman. Men of all ages join in her celebration as she gyrates down the street; she is true and she is perfect. In this brief, shining moment is distilled the essence of Black Orpheus, a laughing, sparkling, cinematic fete about the joy of being alive.
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Black Orpheus exploded onto the art house circuit in 1959, racking up accolades and awards including but not exclusive to the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar from the Academy Awards. It’s a cliché to say but it is true: it was unlike anything that a lot of people had seen before. Ostensibly, it is a transposition of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth from the hills of Ancient Greece to Rio de Janeiro during Carnival in the twentieth century. In actuality it is so much more. Black Orpheus is a movie about music, about color, about how the heartbeat of the world goes on through suffering, through tragedy, and through folly. It’s a movie about how a people survive spirit intact, able and ready to embrace life to its fullest. It’s a movie about myth, where it comes from and its purpose. It is a movie about the wisdom of children and the tempest that is love.
Contemporary critics don’t seem to know what to do with this movie. Over and over again you will read about its lack of “substance”, it’s possible racism, it’s “glossing over” of a harsh reality – in the very same articles where said critic will tell you they loved the movie. I would argue that sometimes liberals aren’t comfortable with anything other than poor people suffering. That a people might not need or want the trappings of empire to find joy in their lives is an alien thought to them. What they are seeing as shortcomings in the film are actually shortcomings within themselves – and in our contemporary culture. Racism is insidious. People are offended on behalf of Black people because the movie has a scene where a Black man is trying to get some watermelon. Well, I’m a Black man and I like watermelon. In fact, I don’t know anyone of any race who doesn’t like watermelon. But if you’re bringing your stereotypes with you to the film what you have is a scene of casual racism rather than a scene of casual comedy and romance. It’s a fine line, no question, but who, in fact, has crossed it? “Substance” need not look like Sounder or Crash to be real. Substance can be about tapping into the collective wellspring of joy, about reminding people of something that they had forgotten, about drawing a thread through the hearts of the people in the movie and the audience watching it -- which Black Orpheus does.
The primary threads that Black Orpheus uses to string people together are beauty (it seems like everybody in Rio is drop dead gorgeous), color (the cinematography is so dazzling color almost becomes another character in the movie) and of course, music. Black Orpheus brought bossa nova to the world’s attention, introducing a rhythm and an attitude that felt new but whose roots were actually quite old, even ancient. The music gives the movie its urgency, its vibrancy, its resonance. What we’re used to getting from story, from script, from acting, we’re instead achieving on a visceral level through rhythm and dancing. This is where we find our connection to the movie and the characters in the movie. Music is so important to the characters in the film and to the film makers themselves that it is the reason the sun comes up at all. Like the Greek myth from which the story came, Black Orpheus ends in tragedy but from that tragedy hope is found in the ability of music – and children – to create a brand new day.
I have never seen any of the actors from Black Orpheus in anything else. None of them, Breno Mello as Orpheus, or the impossibly lovely Marpessa Dawn as Eurydice, went onto become big stars though the movie itself was a hit. (THAT probably had more to do with racism than anything in the movie.) That is a shame. Lourdes de Oliveira in particular, who plays Mira, Orpheus’ fiancé, has a volcanic screen presence. On the other hand, as an audience member you’re almost grateful. In Black Orpheus they all seem supernatural, too beautiful, too innocent, to be human. Knowing that they exist outside this movie might only bring them down from the rarefied air in which we met them to the mundane world of our own reality. I’d rather remember them here, perfect, in a beautiful world where the sun is brought up by a young boy playing a guitar while a young girl in a white dress dances the samba.
(Black Orpheus: the film, at left... Black Orpheus: soundtrack, at right)