Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus, 1959)

Oh, to attend Carnival. 53 years after release, Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus, which won the Palme d’Or, Foreign Language Film Oscar, and Foreign Film Golden Globe, evokes that longing, as it serves mostly to glamorize the Brazilian festival and the costumes, music, and partying that go with it. If it were an advertisement, it would be the best one ever made. As a film, taking you into a foreign, new world, it’s still a success. This is largely due to Luiz Bonfá, who composed two songs that are such a part of Bossa Nova and Jazz culture that you might be surprised to learn that they were made for this film. It’s that music, not the myth of Orpheus the story is based on, that grip the viewer. Indeed, the bulk of the story is told in about 20 minutes after an hour and a half of nonstop dancing, partying, and samba.

Of course, this is not entirely a bad thing, as the story itself remains mostly unchanged from its Greek roots. In this version, Orpheus (Bruno Mello) is, quite unenthusiastically, engaged to Mira, who would prefer he buy her a ring than buy himself a guitar for tomorrow’s Carnival Lucky for Orpheus, the beautiful Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn, later of Soy Cuba) is visiting her cousin Serafina, who lives right next to Orpheus. Having already been told that “Orpheus loves Eurydice” during engagement, he knows exactly who he wants, and so do we.

But more importantly, Black Orpheus is absolutely popping with color. The vividness of the color would probably hurt your eyes if you could pay attention to it while dancing in your seat to the exuberant samba. Black Orpheus has a contagious energy very rarely sustainable in images, but the dancing you see is just as exciting as the music you hear. It’s a beautiful fusion of sound and image, working together to transport the viewer to the film’s own unique world. Above all, Black Orpheus creates an exotic, wonderful place, and it succeeds in its ambitions to take you there rather than just show it to you.

It’s a shame that Camus could not work the same magic on the story. The film is mostly background details that bring us into Brazil or repetitive displays of the same traits in the same characters, but these never occur in the same development. As a result, there is a divide between the story and the setting that continues to elongate; Brazil is never a character, always a backdrop. The story is not so much fit into the setting as it is loosely framed around it, but too often we get the feeling that this story could take place anywhere, and indeed, that the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is condensed into a fraction of the film’s running time confirms these feelings. The two elements work intermittently, not intricately.

There is no doubt that Black Orpheus is at its best when displaying the fun, party-hard culture that surrounds Brazil. By the time the film begins to tell most of its story, the energy is gone, and it’s hard to not to feel lost without Bonfá’s musical styling. Camus’ did not bring much depth to the Greek tragedy, but he transferred it wonderfully to the new setting, and the free-spirited, spontaneous world is undeniably absorbing, so much so that even lackluster storytelling cannot ruin the film.

Grade: B-

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