Director: Marcel Camus
Screenplay: Marcel Camus, Jacques Viot
Based on a Play by:Vinicius de Moraes
Starring: Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn, Lourdes de Oliveira
Country: Brazil, France, Italy
Running Time: 100 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
Black Orpheus is a film that managed to beat the highly regarded French films Hiroshima Mon Amour and The 400 Blows to both the Palme d’Or and Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in the year of its release. It seems surprising now, given the prestige now mounted upon the titles mentioned (although the French New Wave was frowned upon by much of the establishment at the time), but in 1959 the film was a sensation.
Black Orpheus takes the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and transposes it to Rio de Janeiro at carnival time. Orfeo (Breno Mello) is due to marry the strong willed Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira) until he meets the beautiful and rather shy Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn). He falls swiftly in love as the city prepares for the carnival. Mira is not happy though and does her best to win her man back. In the meantime, Eurydice is shadowed by a mysterious figure from her past who looks like death come to Earth. Even without knowing the original legend, you know it can’t end well.
When the classical Greek style title, placed over stone statues, is literally smashed to pieces by a samba band exploding onto the screen, the scene is set for a wild, exciting journey through the world famous Rio carnival. The soundtrack helped spark the bossa nova craze that swept the world and it’s easy to see why. The rhythm of the music rarely lets up and is incredibly infectious. It’s hard not to get up and dance whilst watching the film and the characters spend most of the running time showing off their skills (most of the cast were local dancers). The performances in general are all spirited too.
The film is also visually vibrant and exciting, presenting an explosion of colour from start to finish. The frames are often busy with action too with dancing, streamers and carnival crowds filling the screen with life. The quieter moments generally feature Orfeo playing guitar and singing beautifully. You can believe the rumour mentioned by some young boys in the favela that his playing can make the sun rise.
However, as vibrant as the film is, I actually found all the excitement a bit too much at times. Some more breathing room here and there might have been nice and because the story is very slight the film felt slower than it should have, given the lively delivery. When some more powerful drama arrives in the final third I did find the film a bit more effective though and the final act is surprisingly bleak and poignant.
Overall, it’s a hearty feast for the eyes and ears. There’s so much life on screen it’s almost too much to handle. I did find it dragged a little because of this and the weak narrative. Still, it’s a vivid, eye-popping and toe-tapping take on an old tale that’s well worth experiencing for yourself.
Black Orpheus is out on 9th January on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture and sound quality is fantastic as usual from the label.
You get a lot of special features too. Here’s the full list:
– New, restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
– Optional English-dubbed soundtrack
– Archival interviews with director Marcel Camus and actress Marpessa Dawn
– New video interviews with Brazilian cinema scholar Robert Stam, jazz historian Gary Giddins, and Brazilian author Ruy Castro
– Looking for “Black Orpheus”, a French documentary about Black Orpheus’s cultural and musical roots and its resonance in Brazil today
– Theatrical trailer
– PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Michael Atkinson
I haven’t had time to watch the whole feature length ‘Looking for Black Orpheus’ documentary, but the new interviews are great – incredibly well researched and refreshingly honest about some criticisms aimed at the film. The archive interviews are interesting too, if less compulsory viewing.