Black Orpheus (1959)
Directed By: Marcel Camus
Starring: Marpessa Dawn, Breno Mello
Produced by: Dispat Films, Gemma, Tupan Filmes
Watched on: Hulu
Note: Color, Subtitles
The Samba rhythm is the most addictive rhythm, and I can still hear it even as I take my earphones off. This a retelling of the ancient story of Orpheus and Eurydice, from Greek Mythology; yet set in 1950’s Rio de Janeiro.
Everybody is getting ready for Carnival in the opening scenes, as Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), a girl from the country, flees her home to come to Rio and live with her cousin, Sarafina (Léa Garcia). Someone is after Eurydice and she is afraid for her life. Meanwhile Orpheus (Breno Mello), local heartthrob with a golden voice, has been harangued by prima donna Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira) into engagement; but he falls madly in love with Eurydice when he meets her. This is their story, and it is told in brilliance.
This is how our love will be
Me for you, and you for me
I’ve had enough of sadness
I will make you happy
I want to live in peace
As a retelling of a classic Greek tale is, by necessity, rife with symbolism: the birds in a cage, the mask of the man who is chasing Eurydice, amulets, singing the sun up in the morning. It appears to be about half a retelling of a ancient Greek tragedy, and half a cultural tour. It dwells on the music and dancing deeply for the first hour of the film, and I feel like the pacing suffers for it. The really juicy parts of the film are in the last half-hour of the film or so. Of course that is the climax of the film, but it is also the part where the hero, Orpheus, wanders the city looking for his love. The party is over and all the bright and amazing colors are dirty and torn and strewn about. Wandering the dark streets, still in his tacky gold outfit, the sad Orpheus looks for his Eurydice. Amazing.
EMT: They all react like that at first.
Hermes: They loved each other. It was true love.
EMT: True love? Is there such a thing?
Hermes: There is.
The picture is lush with color, brilliant hues and textures overflow across the screen in a myriad of patterns. The costuming is amazing in this movie, and it dazzles the eye. Then there is a switch, as if you are suddenly watching a completely different movie; and it is violent in it’s change. Frankly, I had a hard time with the first hour or so of the movie, having already known the story of Orpheus and Eurydice beforehand, which is vital to understanding the film, I found the constant samba beat and long dancing scenes tiresome, I like Samba, and Carnival, and music and dancing, but it seemed to carry on and distract from dialogue and character development. I still think that there should have been more to the scenes where Orpheus and Eurydice first start to fall in love, I felt another five minutes of dialogue would have been appropriate. As a reinterpretation, this film gets a large amount of leeway to fit the ancient tale into the world of 1950’s Brazil; and it does that thoughtfully and brilliantly.
I really enjoyed the movie, though I do not like the name, it would be equivalent to reinterpret Hamlet except setting it a poor Alabama town, casting all roles as African-Americans and calling it “Black Hamlet”. I think that would actually be a great movie, except I would title it “Hamlet”, as in a small town, and I would cast Chiwetel Ejiofor as Hamlet and Rosario Dawson as Ophelia, maybe Idris Elba as the ghost of Hamlet’s Father? Terry Crews as Laertes, because Terry Crews does not get enough credit for being Terry Crews. But I digress. As a foreign film in the 1950’s I suppose it was appropriate for the time, but today the title rankles a little. But that is good in and of itself, it is good that it is clear that labeling something because of the color of the skin of the performers is not cool. It could of been called “The Carnival of Orpheus” or “The Lovers of Rio”, or something else that identifies it by the culture it takes place in, rather than the color of the skin of the performers. But it is of it’s time, we must accept that.
Janitor: What are you looking for, brother?
Orpheus: The Missing Persons department.
Janitor: There is such a department, but I never saw any missing persons there.
Janitor: Just mountains of paper.
Janitor: Missing Persons is right here.
Janitor: See? There’s no one there. Just piles of paper.
Janitor: The whole place is full of it. Fifteen floors of paper.
Janitor: All for nothing.