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America discovered a new Brazilian vibe in 1959 through a French movie made in Brazil, Marcel Camus' Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro), 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. The movie was an enormous art house hit and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Within months several noted Brazilian composers and performers had been invited to New York, to collaborate with top American musicians and songwriters.
Much of Black Orpheus is told through song and dance. Trolley car conductor Orpheus (Breno Mello) prepares to play his traditional role in the carnaval celebration, as 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 an engagement 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.
The right film at the right time can do a lot for an exotic foreign country, and Black Orpheus undoubtedly enhanced Brazilian tourism. Its fantasy vision makes the city seem like a paradise, including its hillside shantytown. Instead of a miserable slum we see a community of happy, beautiful, child-like Afro-Brazilians. Critics expecting a more naturalistic approach to foreign cultures have taken issue with the film's idealized portrait of a poverty in which 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. Following him are 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.
The movie has a pleasing style, halfway between fairy tale and travelogue. 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. The heightened "holiday" look turns menacing as the story becomes more serious. The dancing action and lively characterizations are so front 'n' center that it's easy to overlook the smooth camera moves, and even crane shots.
In brilliant color and wearing their carnaval costumes, the cast is beautiful as well. Everyone is well fed, clear-eyed and with 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're born dancing straight from the womb. Even Mira, the "bad girl" of the story, dances like a marvel. 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.
As he might in a Cocteau movie, the character of Death enters 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 creeps menacingly from dark corners of the frame. The gaiety 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 functions on an elemental level. The mythological conceit works beautifully; the movie casts a captivating spell.
The beautiful 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. She 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 an improved DVD of Black Orpheus just last year; this new Blu-ray appears to be the same transfer. The added resolution of Hi-Def really makes a difference with the crowded images, and the improved contrast allows the actors' faces to look much more natural. The 1:33 image is bright, clear and colorful, with many scenes popping off the screen. The mono audio is clear and rich; a second track offers the English-language dub.
Disc producer Abbey Lustgarten has collected a handsome set of extras, beginning with older interviews with director Marcel Camus and star Marpessa Dawn. But other interviews (with film scholar Robert Stam, jazz expert Gary Giddins and Brazilian author Ruy Castro) examine the film's music. A long-form documentary Looking for Black Orpheus also concentrates on the cultural roots and influence of the film's legendary musical contribution. Most viewers of Black Orpheus are fascinated by the music, and these Blu-ray extra features are a genuine resource of knowledge on the subject. An original trailer finishes off the package; Critic Michael Atkinson provides the insert booklet essay.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.