It’s the day before Carnaval, and a young woman named Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) has just arrived in Rio de Janeiro — but she’s not there to have a good time. Instead, she’s run away from her rural home to seek refuge with her cousin Serafina (Léa Garcia). A man has been pursuing her, she says, and when Serafina suggests that he’s simply interested in her for her looks, Eurydice disagrees: “I’m sure he wants to kill me.”
Meanwhile, trolley conductor Orfeu (Breno Mello) and his fiancee, Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), are applying for their marriage license, much to the dismay of his many female admirers. In truth, Orfeu himself seems less enthusiastic about this whole marriage idea than Mira does, and it doesn’t take long for him to start flirting with Eurydice. Although she resists at first, the two are soon drawn together, their romance fueled, at least to some degree, by dance and by Orfeu’s guitar playing and singing. When a mysterious man (Ademar Da Silva) in a skull mask appears, terrifying Eurydice, Orfeu vows that he’ll protect her — a task that may prove more difficult than he imagines.
Marcel Camus’s 1959 film Black Orpheus is based on the ancient Greek legend of Orpheus, a musician who ventured into the underworld in order to save his wife, Eurydice. Although Greek mythology isn’t exactly my strong suit, I was familiar with the basic story thanks to Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950), which I saw several years ago and now wish to revisit. Like Cocteau’s version, which is set in Paris, Black Orpheus shifts the tale to contemporary times and a locale far away from Greece. Even though much of it is grounded in reality, I particularly liked the mythic overtones, the acknowledgement that these events in 1950s Rio echo events from earlier times. When Orfeu and Mira go to get their marriage license, for instance, the clerk guesses that the bride-to-be’s name must be Eurydice, “because everyone knows that Orpheus loves Eurydice.” (Mira, who has no idea what he’s talking about, is alarmed to hear this.) Two boys in Orfeu’s neighborhood, Benedito (Jorge Dos Santos) and Zeca (Aurino Cassiano), believe that he has the power to make the sun rise with his guitar, and they take note of the inscription on the old instrument: “Orpheus is my master.” Orfeu explains that “there was an Orpheus before me, and one may come after I’m gone, but I’m the one ruling now.”
His “now” is very different from the original Orpheus’s world, as is apparent from the moment the film starts: The title card, depicting pale carvings of ancient Greek figures, quickly shatters to reveal exuberant dancers in a world full of color. For these characters, most of whom are impoverished and live in flimsy shacks, Carnaval is the highlight of the year; Serafina can’t even afford bread because she’s spent so much money on her costume, but she doesn’t seem to mind a bit. “No one can resist the madness,” Orfeu’s co-worker Hermes (Alexandro Constantino) tells Eurydice, and that’s true for the viewer as well. It’s easy to get swept up in the music, the dancing, the energy, the color, the gorgeous cinematography. The film is full of life, but it has its quiet moments too, from breathtaking shots of natural scenery to eerie scenes in an all but abandoned building that serves as Orfeu’s underworld — a place he visit while still dressed in his Carnaval finery. Taken all together, it’s truly a memorable viewing experience.
This post is part of the 2017 Blind Spot Series, hosted by The Matinee. My full list can be found here.