Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro)

Directors: Marcel Camus
Screenplay: Marcel Camus & Jacques Viot (based on the play by Vinicius de Moraes)
Stars: Breno Mello (Orfeo), Marpessa Dawn (Eurydice), Marcel Camus (Ernesto), Fausto Guerzoni (Fausto), Lourdes de Oliveira (Mira), Léa Garcia (Serafina), Ademar Da Silva (Death), Alexandro Constantino (Hermes), Waldemar De Souza (Chico), Jorge Dos Santos (Benedito), Aurino Cassiano (Zeca)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1959
Country: France / Italy / Brazil
Black Orpheus Criterion Collection DVD
Black OrpheusMarcel Camus’s Black Orpheus, which won both the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, is now best remembered as the film that introduced Europe and North America to both Brazilian culture and the infectious beats of bossa nova. Once the film was released and its soundtrack, which featured new compositions by composers Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfa, began selling in the millions, its place in cinema history was assured, even if Camus never went on to produce anything so memorable in the ensuing decades. As Peter Rist notes in South American Cinema: A Critical Filmography, Black Orpheus “has almost certainly been seen by many more non-Brazilians than any other film shot in that country and is likely to have provided a first introduction to Brazilian culture for more Europeans and North Americans than any other art work.”

As much a hot-blooded musical as it is a modern take on the ancient Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, Black Orpheus, which was adapted from a play by Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes, is a typically European take on the exoticisms of Third World culture, and while it was one of the first films to exploit the local color and exhilarations of Rio de Janeiro, its romanticized perspective makes it all seem in hindsight a bit shallow and facile. The title itself, which foregrounds the blackness of the characters, is the first hint of its surface-level fascination with life in the Brazilian hillside slums, known as favelados. The poverty-stricken characters, all of whom are of African descent, seem happy and carefree, thus underscoring how bereft the film is of any social or political subtext. Of course, if viewed simply as a tragic romance in the well-worn tradition of Romeo and Juliet scored to an blistering beat, it’s hard not to be taken by the film’s charms, particularly the performances by its largely nonprofessional cast, most of whom were working in the local experimental black theater.

Bren Mello, who at the time was a Brazilian soccer player, stars as Orfeo, the film’s modern-day version of the Greek demigod Orpheus, who is often said to be the progenitor of all music and poetry. Here, Orfeo is a dirt-poor cable-car conductor who has to get his guitar out of hock at the beginning of the film. A gifted musician and singer, Orfeo’s talents are recognized only by his neighbors in the favelado (especially the children), that is, until the arrival of Eurydice (American dancer Marpessa Dawn), a naïve country girl making her first trip to the big city. Orfeo immediately falls in love with her, much to the chagrin of his fiancée Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), a vivacious hothead who seems all wrong for the sensitive Orfeo. Those familiar with romantic tragedy will known from the outset that Orfeo and Eurydice’s love is doomed, but that is part of the draw: We want to see the passion and the purity, even if we know it will end badly.

The story is set during Carnival, a centuries-old tradition in which society is temporarily turned upside down: Social norms no longer apply, the marginalized can take center stage, and the rich and poor masquerade and mingle as if there is no difference between them. Camus immediately sets the carnivalesque tone with the film’s opening shot, in which an ancient frieze of Orpheus and Eurydice literally explodes to reveal a line of frenetically drumming sambistas dancing across the hillside above Rio. Everything is alive with music and movement, which is at times enthralling and at other times a bit silly. This setting, which hadn’t been put on film for Western eyes since Orson Welles’s unseen documentary It’s All True (1942), provides a lavish, colorful, and decadent backdrop to the romance while also infusing the film with a ravishing sense of character that is not, strictly speaking, authentic, but works well with the material. Although popular and critically acclaimed at the time, Black Orpheus also had its share of detractors, particularly the proponents of the French New Wave who saw its color and exoticism as decadent and navel-gazing, not to mention ultimately insulting to the Brazilian culture it co-opted for its romantic fantasy. There is a certain truth to that criticism, and it is hard not to see the film as a cinematic extension of French colonialism. Yet, for all its faults, the film did introduce audiences to Brazil and helped spawn a musical revolution--no small feat indeed.

Black Orpheus Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set
Black Orpheus is also available from The Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray (SRP $39.95).
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • Portuguese Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • English Dolby Digita 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Archival interview with director Marcel Camus
  • Archival interview with actress Marpessa Dawn
  • Video interview with Brazilian cinema scholar Robert Stam
  • Video interviews with jazz historian Gary Giddins and Brazilian author Ruy Castro
  • Looking for Black Orpheus (2005) documentary
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Essay by film critic Michael Atkinson
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateAugust 17, 2010

    Black Orpheus was one of Criterion’s early DVD releases back in 1999, and while it looked good at the time, their new high-definition transfer, taken from a 35mm interpositive, is a strong improvement. Notably, the image has a smoother, softer, more film-like appearance, as the 1999 DVD was riddled with artificial edge enhancement. The new DVD still maintains the film’s bright, bold color schemes, which often place strong primary colors against solid black backgrounds. Detail is excellent throughout, and digital restoration has removed all hints of age and damage. The soundtrack is available in both Portuguese and English dubs, both of which are presented in clean, digitally restored monaural.
    There is no audio commentary on Criterion’s new two-disc set, but there isn’t really a need for one since the supplements on the second disc give you all the information you could want about the production of Black Orpheus and its legacy. Included are two archival French television interviews, one with director Marcel Camus that was recorded at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival and one with actress Marpessa Dawn that was recorded in 1963. For a general background on the film, there is a new video interview with film scholar Robert Stam, who explores the film’s historical importance, but is also quite honest about what he feels are the film’s political and social shortcomings. In another featurette, jazz historian Gary Giddins and Brazilian author Ruy Castro discuss how the film helped to popularize the bossa nova sound in North America and Europe. Also included is Looking for Black Orpheus (2005), a feature-length French documentary by René Letzgus and Bernard Tournois that traces the film’s cultural and musical roots and its resonance in Brazil today. Interviews in the documentary include Marcel Camus’s production assistant, numerous film and music experts, the widow of playwright Vinicius de Moraes (who we see in archival home movies), and actors Breno Mello and Léa Garcis.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (2.5)

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