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In 1959, the exotic end of the art movie scene was focused on Marcel Camus' Black Orpheus, a French movie made in Brazil that features literally wall-to-wall Bossa Nova music by the creators of Bossa Nova, Luis Bonfá, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. The unending rhythms are the pulse of a musical fantasy set in the slums of Rio de Janiero. The movie is not a documentary of slum conditions and not in any way realistic; it's a fantasy adaptation of the Orpheus legend.
Trolley car conductor Orpheus (Breno Mello) prepares to play his part in the carnaval celebration, a mythical figure whose song makes the sun rise. Orpheus is engaged to the attractive but selfish Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira). He redeems his "magic" guitar from the pawnshop while Mira buys herself a ring. New in town is the beautiful Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn). She seeks out her cousin Serafina (Léa Garcia) and tearfully confesses that she's run away from home because a strange man is threatening her. Orpheus and Eurydice meet, fall in love, and take part in the carnaval celebrations. But Eurydice's pursuer, Death (Ademar Da Silva) arrives to tell her he'll be taking her soon. Orpheus wants to protect his new love, but the jealous Mira interferes.
Black Orpheus undoubtedly made a major contribution to Brazilian tourism. Its fantasy vision makes the city seem like a paradise, and its atmospheric hillside shantytowns seem full of happy, beautiful, child-like Afro-Brazilians. Critics expecting a more naturalistic approach to foreign cultures have taken issue with the film's idealized slums, where nobody goes hungry and the main activities are dancing and making love. As the film was made by Frenchmen, it has also been accused of a Eurocentric chauvinism.
The same could be said of any number of classic American musicals that ignore social reality while featuring idealized people singing and dancing. Black Orpheus is a myth transposed to a different arena. Taken on its own terms, it's a classic tale of doomed love in a magic land where the pulsating music is the life of the people. Orpheus is the king of the local balladeers, but he knows that he's only a mortal. He's already followed by a pair of pint-sized acolytes that marvel at his skill with the guitar and with women. His crown is only temporary; he'll be passing it along to the next Orpheus.
Black Orpheus is a pleasure to experience. Cameraman Jean Bourgoin had shot films for Jean Renoir, Orson Welles and Jacques Tati. He adds splashes of color that stylize the film's look without departing too far from reality -- it's a heightened "holiday" look that turns menacing when the story becomes more serious. The dancing action and lively characterizations are so front & center that it's easy to overlook the smooth camera moves, and even crane shots.
In color, wearing their carnaval costumes, the cast is beautiful as well. Robust, clear-eyed, perfect teeth -- it's as if Rio were immune from mundane hardships like poverty and sickness. Characters don't walk, they dance. Tiny kids dance like little dervishes, as if they begin dancing straight from the womb. Even Mira, the "bad girl" of the story, dances like a marvel, and we wonder why everyone doesn't drop dead from heart attacks after a few hours. It certainly accounts for the stars being so thin and healthy-looking.
The character of Death enters the story as another reveler in a carnaval disguise. Eurydice is a veiled princess (she borrows her cousin's costume) and Orpheus is a Greek warrior in charge of a large golden sun. Death wears a patterned leotard with a vague skeletal pattern, and appears menacingly from dark corners of the frame. The gaity of the street dancing shifts to surreal poetry when Orpheus and Death dodge through the halls of a modern building, or race amid the steel and glass of the trolley hub station. Eurydice is an entirely innocent, vulnerable damsel in distress, and Orpheus' struggle to defend her works on an elemental level. The mythological conceit works beautifully; the movie casts a captivating spell.
Marpessa Dawn had previously appeared in only a couple of movies, like the forgettable English horror film The Womaneater. She and her co-star Breno Mello passed away in 2008, within a couple of months of one another. Career-wise, the real winner from the cast is Léa Garcia, who soon became a familiar face on Brazilian TV and is still working.
Black Orpheus' biggest cultural contribution is its infectious Bossa Nova music. Antonio Carlos Jobim had written music for the play Orfeu do Conceição, but the film producers asked for a new score. Frevo, O Nosso Amor and Felicidade are by Jobim, collaborating with poet Vinicius de Moraes. Jobim became an international sensation working with jazz greats, and had an even bigger song hit a few years later, The Girl from Ipanema.
The film's famous love ballad Manhã de Carnaval (A Day in the Life of a Fool) is actually by Luiz Bonfá, another prominent exponent of Brazilian music who enjoyed great international popularity. The movie won awards everywhere, including a Best Foreign Language Oscar and a Palm d'Or at Cannes for director Marcel Camus. Black Orpheus is a good comparison feature with this year's Slumdog Millionaire, an "imitation Bollywood" movie that presents the appalling conditions in India as a colorful background for a materialist success fantasy. Orpheus completely ignores true slum conditions in Brazil, yet seems the more honest picture.
Criterion released its DVD of Black Orpheus ten years ago; I've only seen their earlier laserdisc and this looks far, far better. The 1:33 image is bright, clear and colorful, with many scenes popping off the screen; despite the natural locations we quickly realize that this is no travelogue movie. The mono audio is clear and rich.
This disc is not part of the standard Criterion Collection; it belongs to the new no-frills Criterion line called Essential Art House. The best and latest transfer is used but no extras are included, with the price adjusted accordingly. The Essential releases come separately or in boxed sets, thus making high end art films readily affordable as gift sets. Combined with Black Orpheus in the Volume II set are films by Truffaut, Kurosawa, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger and Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard: The 400 Blows, Ikiru, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Pygmalion and La strada. I've written a separate review of another Criterion boxed set of note, Ten Years of Rialto Pictures.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Black Orpheus rates:
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