Criterion Review: Black Orpheus


★★★★☆
Orpheus, the master musician who could charm all living things with his lyre, is the subject of Marcel Camus' sumptuous 1959 Black Orpheus, a retelling of the Greek myth that situates the story during the Rio de Janeiro Carnival in Brazil. Breno Mello plays the eponymous Orfeu, here rendered as a tram driver with a skilled hand for the guitar and an eye for the ladies. Effortlessly charismatic, Orfeu is still somewhat less than sympathetic given his adulterous treatment of his fiancée Serafina (Léa Garcia), herself at once hot-tempered and vivacious.

Unfortunately, her considerable charms are no match for the ethereal beauty of Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), whom Orfeu first spots negotiating her way through the city's crowded pre-festival streets. Readers of the source text will find themselves on familiar ground, but an in-depth knowledge of the myth is not a prerequisite for enjoyment or appreciation of Black Orpheus. It's one of the film's triumphs that, like the best modern adaptations of Shakespeare, it makes an ancient story feel immediate and vital. Camus' contemporary approach to adaptation may remind viewers of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet.

But where both films are undeniably exuberant, Camus exhibits little of the latter director's famed over-indulgence. The Carnival setting of the film couldn't work better, with cinematographer Jean Bourgoin packing his frame with life, from the fruits and fish of the market to the lush green mountains that surround the city, and the numerous domestic animals that occupy the hammocks and rickety furniture of the hillside favelas. Black Orpheus is a film brimming with vitality, the near constant music of the Carnival creating a sense of rhythm and movement.

All is not well in the edenic atmosphere of the Carnival, though. Orfeu's philandering sends Serafina into raging fits of jealousy, and on learning Eurydice's name his romantic melancholy suggests a self-aware knowledge of their mythical fate. Meanwhile, a malevolent deathly figure stalks Eurydice, culminating in a dizzying night-time climax of music, colour and high-flung emotion. As the story progresses and the mythic parallels grow ever more overt, Camus maintains the film's sense of heightened reality without compromising either its modern setting or fealty to the source material.

Eurydice's inevitable journey to the underworld is emotively represented as a futile ambulance chase, and the tragic ending is as full of pathos and authenticity as the rest of the film is full of vitality. Black Orpheus does not add a great deal to its source but for audiences in 1959, the film was a riot of colour and music, not to mention the significance of a film with a non-white cast winning both the Palme d'Or of that year and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 1960. Black Orpheus is a film to be drunk and luxuriated in, a sensational and rewarding feast for the ears and eyes.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell

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