“Play a song for me, please. Come on.”
‘Black Orpheus’, directed by Marcel Camus in 1959, is a retelling of the Greek myth set during the Rio de Janeiro favela. Orfeu, played by Breno Mello, falls in love with a visitor to the city, Eurydice, played by Marpessa Dawn. She is threatened by both Orfeu’s fiancé Mira and a mysterious figure dressed as a skeleton. It’s a tragedy, but one with such energy, life and colour in its telling that it’s almost impossible to see it as such. The carnival background, and the vertiginous shots of Rio, give the film its visual identity, but it is the soundtrack, driving contemporary bossa nova, that tie the while film together. The characters, especially Eurydice’s cousin Serafina and her sailor boyfriend, are as colourful as the setting, eccentric and witty. Camus seems to resist any notion of gloominess, although, much as Cocteau did in his retelling of the myth in ‘Orpheus’ ten years before, the director choses mundanity and bureaucracy as his gateway to the underworld. Whilst the movie is never less than energetic and upbeat, the scenes of Death stalking Eurydice are unsettling, and the masked figure, played by triple jumper Adhemar da Silva, has a lithe, snake-like physicality, as creepy and weird as Breno Mello’s movements are elegant and perfectly syncopated. It’s a movie as much about music and dance as it is about life and death, and Camus blends the prosaic with the profound to create a new version of the myth that constantly grounds the metaphysical aspects. The closing scene, in which three children, one possibly a reincarnation of Orfeu, dance across the cliffs, is particularly uplifting and suggests that the music, and the myth, is immortal.
Would I recommend it? Yes – watching alongside Cocteau’s ‘Orpheus’ would give an interesting perspective on the flexibility of the myth, but ‘Black Orpheus’ is also a musical in which the style of music completes the story – so it could be watched in the context of a film such as ‘An American in Paris’.