Black Orpheus (1959)

Review #1,405

Director:  Marcel Camus
Cast:  Breno Mello, Marpesa Dawn, Lourdes de Oliveira
Plot:  A retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, set during the time of the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro.

Genre:  Drama / Music
Awards:  Won Palme d'Or (Cannes).  Won 1 Oscar - Best Foreign Language Film
Runtime:  107min
Rating:  Not rated (likely to be PG13 for some disturbing scenes and sexual references)
Source:  Euro-London Films

“Play a song for me, please.  Come on.”

Black Orpheus came at a time when arthouse world cinema was finding niche audiences around the globe.  No one could have predicted, however, the cultural phenomenon that exploded upon its release, especially making its mark on American and European audiences. 

It won the Cannes Palme d'Or and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and suddenly Marcel Camus, a little-known French director, became an overnight sensation.  It would become Camus' only identifiable work, his one-hit wonder in a career that turned out to be unimpressive. 

What struck me most memorably about Black Orpheus is not its story, based on the tragic Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice (transplanted to mid-20th century Rio de Janeiro), but its sights and sounds.  From start to end, nearly every minute is accompanied by diegetic percussion music, its audibility dependent on where the main characters are.  In the thick of action, with Camus revolving his story and scenery around the Carnival, a city-wide street event of music, dance and performance, we become sucked into the hypnotic atmosphere, and grooving along with the rhythms. 

The joyful and colourful movements are matched by an editing style that gives the film a sense of unlimited energy, as if it could persist forever even when the camera stops rolling.  It’s no surprise that the bossa nova and samba music on display here became immensely popular around the world because of the film’s exposure.

We get overly dramatic performances that normally would stick out like a sore thumb, but not in Black Orpheus, which is already such a happening film; the performances which have a stage quality blend themselves seamlessly to the organically constructed mise-en-scene and choreography.  Breno Mello share a lovely, even awkward chemistry, with Marpessa Dawn as the two leads (both passed away in 2008 within six weeks of each other), whose ‘mythic’ characters you would want to root for. 

Camus’ film does lose some of its energy and impetus towards its final act, though that is not my main pet peeve.  What left me unsatisfied (but it’s really my abnormal music bones cracking up) was that an absolutely beautiful song—Manhã De Carnaval—sung and strummed (on the guitar) by Orpheus during a mid-movie courtship, was never reprised in any form again in the later part of the film.  BUMMER.

Verdict:  There’s so much rhythm and energy to this cultural touchstone, plus a tragic love story based on the Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice to boot, that you will find yourself grooving to the bossa nova music with varied emotions.


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