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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Black Orpheus

orpheus_playing

Director: Marcel Camus
Country: France/Brazil/Italy
Year: 1959

Background

First, let’s get this out of the way: No, Marcel Camus did not write The Stranger. That was Albert (no relation, apparently). In fact, if you placed The Stranger at one end of the “depressing/not depressing” spectrum (at the “depressing” end, for those of you who weren’t forced to read it in Mr. Hanby’s class), Black Orpheus would reside far down at the opposite (“not depressing”) end.

Marcel Camus was born in Chappes, Ardennes, France in 1912. He directed over a dozen films, but today’s selection, Black Orpheus, was the undisputed pinnacle of his career.

As you might be able to guess from its title alone, Black Orpheus is a retelling of the Orpheus/Eurydice myth, but with an all-Black cast. (Note to Jeff Lageson: Don’t get all excited. I’m not talking about the soccer team.) Set in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival, Black Orpheus introduced Brazilian bossa nova rhythms to a wider audience, courtesy of the soundtrack by Antonio Carlos Jobim (the guy who wrote Girl from Ipanema).

Black Orpheus was hugely successful, winning the Palme d’or at Cannes and the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Camus went on to direct ten or so more films, of steadily declining quality, and died in Paris in 1982.

Synopsis

The film opens with a static shot of classical Greek statues depicting Orpheus, which immediately fills me with dread, but then the screen LITERALLY EXPLODES to reveal a group of dancing, drumming Brazilian men in outlandishly colorful costumes that look like someone went apeshit with a Bedazzler, and my dread subsides.

Soon the film drifts up the hills to the favelas, and we see women carrying water and packages on their heads, doing all the hard work while the children fly kites and the men play guitars. Just like today. The mood is vibrant, joyous and sexy, the sun is shining, the Rio harbor sparkles below. Carnival is tomorrow!

In the harbor, a ferry arrives, clearly over its safe weight limit, packed to overflow capacity with people dancing and drumming. One of the passengers is a scared young woman, beautiful and alone.

A wise blind man (is there any other kind?) offers to lead her through the bewildering clamor to safety. Marching bands roll past, blaring samba tunes. Street vendors noisily hawk their goods: onions, steaks, necklaces, masks, octopi… Yes, octopi: purple and fleshy, draped over a giant plate carried on a vendor’s head.

Our beautiful and frightened heroine is whisked away by the crowd and finds herself on an impossibly overcrowded streetcar, piloted by the handsome and charismatic Orpheus, resplendent in his conductor’s uniform.

The streetcar reaches the end of the line, and the only remaining passenger is our heroine. You already know this is Eurydice, right? A perfect “meet cute” opportunity for Orpheus and Eurydice, except for one small problem: Orpheus’ fiancé, Mira, is approaching.

Let me just stop briefly to note that Mira is eye-bogglingly hot. Also, she’s kinda cranky, but when a woman is that hot, men’s minds become clouded and they make poor relationship choices. Also, in all fairness, it appears that Orpheus is a bit of a playa. Like J.Lo and Marc Anthony, they look fantastic together, but I’d say chances are better than even they’ll be in divorce court by the end of the year.

Orpheus and Mira leave together, bickering, and Eurydice is left alone with the wise old streetcar conductor (is there any other kind?) Hermes. Eurydice says she doesn’t plan on attending the Carnival festivities, but Hermes chuckles knowingly. “You’ll end up going. No one can resist the madness.” Ominous, that. Hermes then directs her to her cousin’s neighborhood, which turns out to be the favela we saw in the opening scene.

Orpheus and Mira are applying for a marriage license, and the too-clever-by-half clerk remarks, laughing: “Everyone knows that Orpheus loves Eurydice.” “Who is this Eurydice woman?” demands Mira, apparently unfamiliar with the basics of Greek mythology. My goodness, she is hot, though.

Mira wants an engagement ring, but Orpheus wants to get his guitar out of hock. After all, Carnival is tomorrow! At the pawn shop, everyone is hocking umbrellas for walking-around money. Orpheus’ magic guitar is passed over the crowd to his hands. Meanwhile, Mira buys herself a ring. “You owe me 110 bucks,” she tells the none-too-happy Orpheus.

Back to Eurydice: In the favela, she finds her cousin (Serafina), who is waiting for her boyfriend, Chico Boto. Say it with me: Chico. Boto. I love that name. Anyway, Eurydice reveals the reason for her surprise visit: she ran away from home, fleeing a mysterious man who wants to kill her. Serafina counters, sensibly: “He just wants to get into your pants.” Serafina is wrong about this.

Two young boys, Benedito and Zeca, weave in and out of the story. Benedito gives Eurydice an amulet, which she promises to wear forever. Later, as Orpheus tunes his guitar, the boys ask, “Is it true that you make the sun rise by playing your guitar?” Orpheus confirms that this is true (kids are so gullible!). The words, “Orpheus is my master” are inscribed on the guitar. “There was an Orpheus before me,” explains Orpheus, “and there may be one after me.”

Orpheus plays, and next door, Eurydice listens and dances alone. Eventually, Orpheus realizes that she is next door, and when he finds out her name, he tries to seduce her: “Orpheus likes Eurydice, everyone knows.” To which she replies: “but I don’t like you.”

Orpheus is persistent: “Try to remember… it is an old story… Eurydice’s lips were trembling with anxiety… and the perfumed flower of her mouth opened slightly…” Eurydice cries, and Orpheus apologizes for coming on too strong. For the first time, he seems tender, wounded, sweet. He rests his head against her hand, she strokes his head. The sun is setting. Tomorrow is Carnival.

That night, all the characters gather at the pre-Carnival dance party. Mira is about to explode out of her dress, Zeca is going into a tambourine-slapping trance, and Orpheus is swaggering around in sexy open-shirted glory. Odd to see Brazilian people dressed like French colonialists or George Washington, with powdered wigs and elaborately ruffled shirts.

According to Benedito, Serafina is the Queen of Night, and Mira is the Queen of Day, referring (I think) to the parts they will play in the Carnival celebration. Mira pursues Orpheus, but he only has eyes for Eurydice. “I want a costume for her!” he demands, and the favela women begin to undress Eurydice for her fitting.

Meanwhile, a Carnival reveler dressed in a spooky Spiderman-as-Venom costume is lurking around the periphery, stalking Eurydice. When he appears at the window of the costume-fitting hut, Eurydice flees into the night, with Venom and Orpheus in hot pursuit. Orpheus saves her from the masked stalker, but this is clearly not the end of the story. “I am in no hurry,” Venom assures Orpheus, as he fades into the darkness.

Orpheus carries Eurydice to safety at Serafina’s house. Together, they admire her scarf, decorated with signs of the zodiac. “That is my house in heaven,” she explains, pointing. “I will rent the one right next to yours,” proclaims Orpheus, lovestruck.

Eurydice goes to bed, and Orpheus begins the night on a hammock outside, but (as any man could tell you) that doesn’t last for very long, and they wake up in bed together, Eurydice glowing.

Today is Carnival! Serafina is supposed to play the Queen of Night, but she decides she would rather knock boots with – say it with me – Chico Boto, so Eurydice wears her costume and dances in her place, and we all know that can’t end well.

Mira suspects that Orpheus has been unfaithful, and raises this subject with him: “Here’s what I think of that bitch’s dirty rag!” she screams, tearing Eurydice’s beautiful zodiac scarf. “If I see her again with you, I will kill her!” Orpheus tries to break up with Mira, but she’s too busy yelling and throwing things.

For the day’s performance, Orpheus is wearing a gold mesh vest and a gold lamé skirt and – as promised – is actually raising the (papier-mâché and gold leaf) sun. Carnival begins in earnest, with various “schools” performing their dance routines down the main street. In the crowd, we catch glimpses of Venom, watching and waiting.

When Venom and Mira see Serafina in the crowd with her boyfriend, CHICO BOTO, they both realize that the whirling Queen of Night is Eurydice. Mira tears a giant iron staple from a nearby bandstand and chases after Eurydice, while Venom maneuvers in simultaneously. Eurydice’s magical amulet is torn off and broken in the confusion.

Eurydice eludes both pursuers for the moment, but is eventually cornered in the streetcar switching yard. To escape Venom, she clings to a power line. Predictably, Orpheus chooses that moment to arrive and switches on the power, killing Eurydice instantly. Her lifeless body is taken away in an ambulance, sirens blaring, Venom riding the running-board.

Orpheus wanders through the wreckage of Carnival, searching for his beloved. Dazed with grief, he finds himself in a massive Kafka-esque abandoned public records building. “I’m looking for Missing Persons,” he tells the janitor.” “There is such a section, but I never saw any persons there, only paper.” The janitor instead leads him to building, guarded by a snarling dog (can you guess the dog’s name?). Inside, a Macumba priest with a headdress is smoking a cigar. A woman receives the spirit, has a seizure, and is given a cigar. Eurydice speaks through an old woman: “Don’t look back, Orpheus. You will never see me again.”

Orpheus stumbles through the streets, weeping, and eventually collapses in front of his streetcar-conducting mentor, Hermes. “I have nothing left in life!” he cries. “We are all poor,” responds Hermes, “and all that’s left to be said is the word of the poor: thanks.”

Orpheus makes his way to the morgue, and claims Eurydice’s body. Cradling her gently against his chest, he walks up the long path to his mountaintop favela, speaking to her softly. “Everything is beautiful, Eurydice. My heart is a bird whose thirst is quenched by a drop of dew. Thank you, Eurydice. Thank you for this new day.”

Upon reaching his neighborhood, Orpheus’ reverie is broken: Mira has set fire to his house as revenge for his cheating ways. When Mira sees Orpheus, she hurls a rock at him. Her aim is excellent, and Orpheus, still holding Eurydice, falls from the cliff.

Benedito brings Orpheus’ guitar to Zeca: “Hurry! Play and make the sun rise!” he exhorts his friend. “Now you are Orpheus!” Zeca plays, haltingly at first, but with increasing skill, and the sun rises.

What I Liked

There are so many things I love about this film: the propulsive bossa nova rhythms, the outrageous costumes, the eye-filling vistas from the mountainside favela, the sexy and magnetic performances, the poetic language, the gentle songs that Orpheus sings to raise the sun, the ominous public records building, the creepy/funny Macumba ceremony… that’s a short list. Above all, this is a film that shows me an unfamiliar world and makes it visceral and believable and interesting. Breno Mello (Orpheus) and Marpessa Dawn (Eurydice) are both gorgeous, without question, but they are also warm, funny, sometimes playful, sometimes gravely serious, and always riveting. Finally, what a contradiction to watch the rare movie where every single character is Black, and yet this is not the heavy-handed “Message” of the film; the context of the film simply makes White characters superfluous. These characters are fully-realized without being drawn against the backdrop of White society, and that’s not common.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

Some critics have accused Camus of cultural tourism, of blithely romanticizing poverty, and that may be a valid criticism: I have no doubt that City of God (or the excellent documentary supplement on the City of God DVD) does a better job of depicting the desperation and violence of favela life. But let’s be clear: Black Orpheus makes no claim of anthropological realism. This is the retelling of a myth, and a particularly exciting and vibrant retelling at that.

There is also a scene where Chico Boto eats a watermelon, and some critics have accused this scene of re-inscribing a racist stereotype. I’m a white guy, so caveat emptor, but I can only tell you that it didn’t strike me that way. The character had already been established as a bottomless pit, and the watermelon was one of many things he ate. It was hot, and it made sense to me that he would enjoy some watermelon. But again: I’m a white guy, so I’m not the best judge of whether a scene is racist or not. YMMV.

Should You See It?

Absolutely! I’ve seen it twice now, and the dancing made still me laugh with joy, and the ending still made me cry. It’s one of those movies (like Chungking Express, which I also watched recently) that actually make me glad to be alive, that make me feel hopeful and excited and happy. If you watch it, come back and let me know what you thought!

Next: Brief Encounter

5 Comments

  1. Absolutely LOVED this film! The color, the liveliness of the Carnival, the reality of life ( poverty, hope, betrayal, death, and pure love ). I’ve seen it a countless number of times and it’s just as mesmorizing as the first time. My favorite romantic movie of all time.

  2. 1
    love the riot of
    colored cloth and black people
    living high in slums

    2
    hate the mind numbing
    without end headache pounding
    incessant drumming

    3
    sweet love shared even
    after his hand throws the light
    of her death, his fall

    [Okay, kind of hokey, but I wanted to write something different. As I told Matt, I’m still casting about for my voice.]

  3. Editorial note: One of the things I like about this watching/writing review process is how Jason (who I love deeply) and I could watch the exact same films and have COMPLETELY different takes on them. Such is the nature of art, I suppose. Of course Jason sits in his wonderful home theatre with pad and paper in hand, probably stopping the film on occasion to jot something down – rewinding the film to clear up a vague scene that maybe he didn’t fully comprehend. While I watch the films, usually in segments, on a 7″ DVD player in the living room while kids/family/television goes on in the background or while I’m doing the dishes or folding laundry. So…certainly…I may miss something and/or comprehend something in a completely different way than he did. Plus, I should add, that Jason is far more intelligent than me, better read, better life expierenced, more diverse film-watcher than yours truly.

    That out of the way…here comes my review.

    “Black Orpheus” is based on a Greek Tragedy. Now, I’m not really hip on what is Greek but I do know what a tragedy is and it certainly means that no one in the end is going to ride off into the sunset with their loved one making “googly” eyes at them to live happily ever after.

    So…with a vague idea of how this is going to end – even before I’ve started it – I plopped the DVD into my 7” player and decided to be whisked away to the magical land of Rio De Janeiro.

    Now, I’ve seen Shakespeare’s tragedies moved to more “modern” settings such as New York for “West Side Story” so I’m not that shocked when a story gets moved to a different location. I can buy that. But Rio during “Carnival?”

    Now, if Jason didn’t comment on “Carnival” above – let me give you my overall take without doing any research whatsoever on it. “Carnival” is the Rio/South American equivalent of “Mardi Gras” which, of course, literally means “Fat Tuesday.” “Fat Tuesday” of course comes before “Ash Wednesday” and the whole purpose is to get a load on, sleep with as many people as possible, expose your breasts, collect bead necklaces, eat lots and lots of meat for the next day it will be Lent and you’ll have to not do all those things for 40 days. “Mardi Gras” starts, I think, a week or two before “Ash Wednesday” – I don’t know about “Carnival” but would assume, back in 1957 when “Black Orpheus” was made – that it took place a week before the beginning of Lent or maybe the actually TUESDAY before Ash Wednesday.

    So…setting a Greek tragedy in amongst the debauchery of people drinking, partying, living it up to the hilt…isn’t that big of a stretch and could very well be an interesting mix of not only cultures but themes. You know, like setting a brutal murder of a family at Disneyland.

    The story starts out with us following a gal named Serafina. Soon, though, Serafina will not be our female of main interest. That will be Eurydice – but she doesn’t show up for 10 minutes or so. In the meantime we meet Mira. You see Mira is in love with Orpheus who is a cable car driver. He’s a happy-go-lucky chap who plays the guitar but doesn’t have a lot of money (in fact he pays to get his guitar out of the pawn shop instead of buying Mira an engagement ring). Mira, who we first see poured into a dress so tight, I’m surprised she can even breathe wants to get married and is in love with Orpheus. Orpheus, though in love with her, has other things on his mind – like getting his guitar out of hock.

    When they finally make to the office to get the wedding license the clerk makes a joke out of how Orpheus must be marrying Eurydice. Mira doesn’t take too kindly to this off-hand jokey comment. But the seed is planted in Orpheus’s brain.

    Where is Eurydice? Well…she’s on the ferry from “the island” (or someplace) and she is cousin to Serafina. She’s a girl full of life and wonder and good teeth and ready to head to the BIG CITY and make a life. When she accidentally stays on Orpheus’s street car all the way to the end, he yells at her to get off but helps her find her friend’s house.

    Before we can say “plot twist” they’re suddenly in love and Orpheus wants her…now.

    Wait! I know what you’re thinking: “Where the heck is “Carnival?” Well…it’s all around them. You see in Rio for “Carnival” they, uh, dance. And dance. And dance. AND DANCE. And dance some more. There are moments that grind the film to a halt just to see Mira shake her groove thing and dance. There is a parade, too and some parties – which come in later – but mostly it’s just people dancing and prancing about.

    Orpheus, now in love with Eurydice, wants to hook up with her. With guitar in hand he sings songs and the local boys look up to him so much that they’ve determined that the sun will not rise unless Orpheus sings.

    ***author note: At this point in the film I was wondering if this film somehow influenced the directors who went on to make the Frankie and Annette beach movies. If they killed off Frankie and Annette at the end, it would probably be eerily similar to “Black Orpheus.”***

    Now, out of the blue two basic things happen. 1. Eurydice announces to Hermes the friendly cable car supervisor that she left the island (or whatever) because there was a man there following her determined to kill her. Who is this man? Why would he want to kill her? I have no idea – and they don’t explain it either. Maybe Eurydice is just paranoid. And 2. Mira COMPLETELY disappears. Oh, she shows up here and there but that plot line of marrying Orpheus suddenly takes a back seat to Orpheus’s relationship with Eurydice and her paranoia. At this point I was waiting for a really good cat fight and hair pulling and accusatory finger pointing that you would see on a Jerry Springer episode. But, sadly, that didn’t happen.

    What does happen is that Orpheus and Eurydice split the sheets and he’s happy and they go to a party where SUDDENLY a guy dressed as a skeleton shows up and tries to kill her. Again…WHO is this guy? WHY does he want to kill her? We have no idea and it’s never explained.

    Eurydice runs, guy chases her, Orpheus chases guy, knives are flashed, people dance(!), and Eurydice runs into the arms of Hermes who says to her: “Go to my place, you’ll be safe.” Now…you’d think that she’d not want to wander off in the dark again to go to Hermes’ pad but you’d be wrong. Off she goes when the skeleton guy goes after her.

    Finding refuge in the cable-car house, she stays away from her killer by climbing aboard the top of a cable car and holding on to cables.

    When Orpheus comes to find her, he flips on a switch inadvertently causing Eurydice to be electrocuted and killed. At which point Skeleton Man says: “Now she’s mine.” Okay, dude, if you’re into dead chicks… Then Skeleton Man kicks Orpheus’s ass and jumps onto the ambulance like Spider-man (or Venom as Jason so rightly described)!

    Waking up after the beat down, Orpheus is distraught. And though Hermes says she’s dead and was taken to the morgue – he instead goes to the hospital CONVINCED that she’s still alive. Since this is a Greek tragedy we know she ain’t coming back. After the quick trip to the hospital he heads to the missing person’s bureau after a police officer who knows him points to the proper floor. This is AFTER the officer tries to get Orpheus to show him some of his great dance moves…no…I’m not kidding.

    All he finds in missing persons is, well, paper.

    Still avoiding the morgue he gets dragged to a revival meeting where people, uh, dance. And are filled with “the spirit.” He stands there for an interminably long time. Nearly painful for a viewer like me. Yes, people are dancing. Yes, there are statues. Yes, she’s filled with the sprit. Yes, people are dancing. Yes, there are statues…repeat. Finally he hears Eurydice’s voice. She’s BEHIND HIM! But he can’t look – finally he looks and the voice is coming from an old lady filled, I assume, with Eurydice’s spirit. Orpheus beats her up. Okay, not really, but he does push her. Dick.

    FINALLY he goes to the morgue and finds his beautiful Eurydice and carries her body all the way home. About a hundred yards off, and next to a cliff, he sees a fire and Mira (FINALLY!) is in a fight with someone and she takes a rock and throws it at Orpheus who falls WITH Eurydice still in his arms to his death.

    The End!

    WHAT I LIKED:

    Color film was nice. Rio looks like an interesting place to visit.

    Mira’s skin tight dress.

    WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

    Most of it. A lot of it seemed pretty pointless. Plots that went no where, things that just seemed inserted to keep the story moving. Characters that come and go and really no one that I cared much about. Maybe if I knew more of the original Greek tragedy. Maybe if there was a good cat fight between Mira and Eurydice. Maybe if there was, I don’t know, 20 minutes of dancing cut out of the film…

    Bottom line: Nothing that great on all fronts. I now consider this the worst of the bunch. “Beauty and the Beast” is looking better.

    • Culturally clueless and tone deaf

  4. It’s funny; some of the things that bugged you about Black Orpheus – unbelievable coincidence, unexplained character shifts, etc. – are the same things that I don’t like about most Shakespeare. But, in this film, none of that bothered me. I totally bought the premise: These characters are enacting a script that was written long ago, and they are powerless to change their fates. I liked the characters, loved the music and scenery, and somehow it all just… clicked for me. But good to hear the alternate view!

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