[Join Ettes leader Coco Hames as she moves through the Janus Films Essential Art House DVD box set one film at a time.]
BLACK ORPHEUS directed by MARCEL CAMUS (1959)
Running time: 107 minutes
In Portuguese with English subtitles
Marcel Camus' Black Orpheus (1959) is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: the story of Orpheus filtered through exoticism, told through a black Brazilian man in a black Brazilian community. Our Orfeu (played by Breno Mello) is in the favelas (slums) in the hills surrounding Rio de Janeiro, and his Eurydice (played by Marpessa Dawn, who would go on to marry Camus) comes in from out of town and shakes up the world of our protagonist.
In Greek mythology, Orpheus has the gift of music, and is able to play better than anyone. This theme carries us through this entire film, with Orfeu's instrument of choice a guitar. The children of the favela believe that the sun only rises because Orfeu plays the guitar to make it so, a myth he indulges. Orfeu is a ladies' man, but is engaged to the provocative and jealous Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira). This of course doesn't really matter so much when Orfeu meets Eurydice on his route conducting a street car she is riding to visit her cousin. Love at first sight.
The film differs from the classic myth wherever it needs to. Characters like Hermes (here, Orfeu's boss, the station master), Death, Cerberus and Hades morph to fit the storyline and timeframe of Brazil during Carnivale. Here I should mention that if you are agoraphobic, prone to sensory overload, or get anxious at dance parties or shows (like I do) you might start to lapse into some form of a panic attack at all the crazy dancing and crowd scenes. It's awesome but was starting to freak me out. But then, I don't like parties! The bossa nova music featured in the film was really impressive and at the time hadn't been heard by the masses to the extent it is known today.
Visually, Black Orpheus is a feast, with bold and bright colors emphasizing the heady experience of Carnival and foreshadowing the drama of the doomed love affair. The actors are stunningly beautiful; Camus saw soccer player Mello on the streets of Rio and cast him for his physical beauty alone. The film won the Oscar as well as the Palme d'Or, and while I felt like it dragged a bit near the end (especially if you're familiar with the myth and know essentially how it's going to end) it is a beautiful take on the story, and leaves you with a distinct feeling of loss, which recalls a line from a song Orfeu sings earlier in the film: "Sadness has no end, happiness does."