Directed by: Marcel Camus
Screenplay by: Marcel Camus, Jacques Viot, Vinicius de Moraes (playwright)
Starring: Bruno Mello, Marpessa Dawn, Léa Garcia, Lourdes de Oliveira, Waldemar de Souza, Alexandro Constantino, Jorge dos Santos, Adhemar de Silva, Aurino Cassanio
Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro in Portuguese) is a retelling of the classic Greek legend of “Orpheus and Eurydice” and an adaptation of Vinicius de Moraes’s play, Orfeu da Conceição. Orpheu (Bruno Mello) is a streetcar conductor in Rio de Janeiro and Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) is a young woman newly arrived in town. The film opens with the image of a Greek bas relief and then explodes onto the outskirts of a favela (a type of shanty town). Musicians are parading up the road.
Eurydice is seeking out her cousin, Serafina (Léa Garcia) and travels down into the city where preparations for Carnival are already in full swing. She boards a streetcar driven by Orpheu all the way to the end of the line. Orpheu introduces her to Hermes (Alexandro Constantino), who provides her with direction to her cousin’s village.
On his way back home, Orpheu runs into Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), who is eager to become engaged with him, although it is clear that he has his misgivings. At the marriage license bureau, upon learning Orpheu’s name, the clerk jokes, asking whether Mira is Eurydice. Thinking that Eurydice is one of Orpheu’s lovers (he is something of a playboy), Mira reacts jealously, and the clerk explains that he is only joking and that he was simply referring to an ancient legend. Later, Mira wants to get an engagement ring, but Orpheu wants to use his paycheck to get his guitar out of hock.
Meanwhile, back at the favela, Eurydice and Serafina reunite. Eurydice explains that she is on the run from a jilted ex-lover who appears intent on killing her. Serafina plays down the threat, suggesting that the man is simply frustrated that he couldn’t get into Eurydice’s pants.
Orpheu returns to the favela, which by coincidence is the same favela Eurydice and Serafina live in. It is clear from everyone’s reaction to him, especially the women, that he is a well-sought-out individual. The children of the village respect his musicianship, believing that he has the power to make the sun rise every morning with his guitar playing. Orpheu jokingly allows them to believe this.
Eurydice overhears Orpheu playing and the two meet again, and begin to fall in love. However, Orpheu is having a difficult time hiding from Mira, who is growing increasingly suspicious of his prolonged attempts to avoid her.
Preparations for the next day’s Carnival begin and Mira is to be the queen of the favela’s samba school. Orpheu also insists that Eurydice get a costume and join the festivities. Then, suddenly, Eurydice’s scorned lover (Adhemar de Silva) tracks her down, wearing the mask and costume of Death. However, Orpheu gallantly defends her from him. Orpheu lets her sleep in his home, but the next day it becomes imperative to hide her from Mira. Serafina suggests that she wear her costume and hide behind a veil. The disguise should protect Mira, and by taking her place in the festival, Eurydice will give Serafina the chance to reunite with Chico, her sailor boyfriend (Waldemar de Souza), who is on shore leave.
The Carnival kicks off and Orpheu dances with Eurydice rather than Mira, much to her chagrin. Mira strips Eurydice of her veil and attacks her, intent on murdering her. At the same time, Death is also in close pursuit. Hermes advises Eurydice to calm down and wait for Orpheu in the station house. Death, however, follows her.
Trapped in the station house, Eurydice hangs from a power line to escape from Death. Just then, Orpheu enters, calling Eurydice’s name. He turns on the power to illuminate the station house, but in doing so, electrocutes Eurydice. A struggle ensues between Orpheu and Death; Death wins, declaring, “Now she’s mine,” and absconds with her body.
Orpheu begins his pursuit of Eurydice throughout the city, first at the hospital, and then at the Bureau of Missing Persons. However, he is informed by a friendly janitor that there is nothing but papers, and in fact, it is in this Bureau where people go missing. He takes Orpheu down a long flight of stairs to a place where a Macumba ritual is being held. They cross through a courtyard that is being guarded by a dog named Cerberus and enter the building where the ritual is already taking place.
Orpheu is instructed to sing in order to call for Eurydice’s spirit to come to him. Suddenly, she speaks to him, but insists that he must be satisfied with her voice alone, for to turn around would be to break the spell. It is not enough to simply hear her voice; Orpheus must see and touch her as well. When he does, he discovers that an elderly woman is the source of the voice. As soon as he approaches her, Eurydice’s spirit leaves the woman’s body.
Orpheu is guided by Hermes to the morgue to collect Eurydice’s body, which Hermes has somehow located. He takes her back to the favela only to discover that his hut is on fire. The rage-filled Mira runs towards him, and hurls a stone at him. Orpheu looses his footing and falls from the precipice to his death. Orpheu and Eurydice are finally at rest together. Upon realizing that she has killed her lover, Mira erupts in grief.
Meanwhile, Benedito and Zeca (Jorge Dos Santos and Aurino Cassiano), the village children, become afraid that the sun will not rise unless Orpheu’s guitar is played. Benedito implores Zeca to play, and as Zeca does, the sun begins to rise.
We took a cab to the revival theater where the movie was playing. The film, a groundbreaker of sorts due to its mostly black, Brazilian cast, had been made in the fifties. The story line was simple: the myth of the ill-fated lovers Orpheus and Eurydice set in the favelas of Rio during Carnival. In Technicolor splendor, set against scenic green hills, the black and brown Brazilians sang and danced and strummed guitars like carefree birds in colorful plumage. About halfway through the movie, I decided that I’d seen enough, and turned to my mother to see if she might be ready to go. But her face, lit by the blue glow of the screen, was set in a wistful gaze. At that moment, I felt as if I were being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth. I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different. (186-187)
–From Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama
I begin with this quote from Barack Obama because I think it helps to illustrate just how varied reactions are to this film. On the other side of the spectrum, according to biographer Eric Fretz, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat included among his early childhood musical influences to be his grandfather’s Latin band, West Side Story, and Black Orpheus (page 5 from Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Biography). Meanwhile, in episode 10 of the first season of The Cosby Show, Cliff Huxtable cites the movie as the main reason he has wanted to visit Rio de Janeiro (via IMDB).
Before discussing this film, I would like to conclude my introduction with just one more quote from Obama’s autobiography:
I turned away, embarrassed for her, irritated with the people around me. Sitting there in the dark, I was reminded of a conversation I’d had a few years earlier with a friend of my mother’s, an Englishman who had worked for an international aid organization throughout Africa and Asia. He had told me that of all the different peoples he had met in his travels, the Dik of Sudan were the strangest.
“Usually, after a month or two, you make contact,” he had said. “Even where you don’t speak the language, there’s a smile or a joke, you know–some semblance of recognition. But at the end of the year with the Dik, they remained utterly alien to me. They laughed at the things that drove me to despair. What I thought was funny seemed to leave them stone cold.”
I had spared him the information that the Dik were Nilotes, distant cousins of mine. I had tried to imagine this pale Englishman in a parched desert somewhere, his back turned away from a circle of naked tribesmen, his eyes searching an empty sky, bitter in his solitude. And the same thought had occurred to me then that I carried with me now as I left the movie theater with my mother and sister: The emotions between the races could never be pure; even love was tarnished by the desire to find in the other some element that was missing in ourselves. Whether we sought out our demons or salvation, the other race would always remain just that: menacing, alien, and apart. (187-188)
I reflect on this statement by our 44th president at the same time that I reflect on my initial and lingering impression of Black Orpheus. At the same time that I do this, a part of me wants to jump for joy at the thought that Obama and I would actually have something to talk about. There is a fantasy, I think, that we all have, where we say to ourselves, “Wouldn’t it be nice to meet this famous person?” I’ve had this fantasy myself, but at the same time, the fantasy has also followed with the question: “Yeah, but what would we talk about?” It’s generally hard enough for me to strike up a conversation with a person I barely know. There’s the whole problem of having to figure out what both of you share in common that you can talk about without boring each other to death, or alternatively, coming to blows. Politics seems like an obvious conversation topic with a president, and I certainly have a whole laundry list of recommendations for any politician who cares to hear what I think. But politics is a subject one discusses with one’s friends (or enemies); you can actually become very passionate about the topic as each of you attempts to hash out your idea of a better society. Discussing politics with a politician, on the other hand, is a different matter all together. These are groomed professionals who have rehearsed answers for everything. If I sat down with President Obama today and discussed marriage equality, for instance, I doubt that we’d have anything more than a canned conversation.
But movies, on the other hand, now there’s a topic that each of us can sink our teeth in!
So, how might I begin such a conversation?
“So, um, Mister President, I read your book and Black Orpheus . . . you know, I just saw that movie, and I have to say I can sort of see your point.”
And, if he was busy, he might just say, “Very good,” but if he had some time to spare, he might instead, say, “Oh, really, James? Please explain.” And, so we would begin our conversation . . .
Yes, I do see the President’s point, but I must confess, I see his mother’s as well.
First, let us begin with the title of the film: Black Orpheus or Orpheu Negro. Either way you say it, the title alerts you to the fact that this is a movie that sees blackness as alien. It suggests a sci-fi style parallel universe where black people lead identical lives of white people, experiencing everything, including the Greek myths. In Brazil, where blackness and racial integration is more of a fact of life, it makes sense that the film, which began as a play, was not called Black Orpheus but rather Orpheus of Concepcion (Orfeu da Conceição). In other words, this is not Orpheus of a specific racial background, but rather Orpheus of a particular neighborhood. To me, this makes better sense. After all, Shakespeare didn’t write Shylock, the Jew, but rather The Merchant of Venice. It’s a nicer title and raises the question, “Who is the merchant the title refers to?” However, the film itself is French, not Brazilian, and its director/screenwriter Marcel Camus seems at least partly conscious of another Black Orpheus, in this case, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Orphée Noir.
As Stanford University’s very excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes, “[u]nlike other nationalisms, [Sartre] explained, which reclaimed the tongue of the people against the imperialist imposition of the language by which they were governed, black people had to use the language of domination imposed by French colonialism as cement for their shared Négritude and as ‘miraculous weapons.’” French, as spoken by African subjects, appears instantaneously foreign to the ears of the white Frenchman, and it is because the words are not meant for the Frenchman’s ear that it immediately threatens his self-assured sense of domination over the black Other.
To a degree, we see a little of what Sartre addresses in the film. Orpheu’s reaction to his love being compared to the ancient Greek legend is first one of curiosity, and then one of transformation. By the time he tells Eurydice the legend, its story has transformed into something entirely unique, even as both he and she exist in this cinematic universe where their lives parallel the Greek legend. So, there is a sense of being able to exist independent of the Europeans within the favela, and to be able to create an entirely unique mythology, but on the other hand, a way in which the European filmmaker manages to cling onto his presumed domination by dictating the course of the story. At the end of the day, this film will play out according to the European legend.
Yes, but should we be too hard on the film?
After having viewing some very difficult and challenging Belgian avant garde films, I found this musical to be a delightful respite. The viewer is immediately bombarded with the clash of samba rhythms and melodies as people everywhere dance and perform their instruments. Even the riders on the ferry erupt into spontaneous dance. (One imagines that if this is the commute ritual of a typical resident of Rio, that people must arrive at work very tired.) We are also bombarded with color, and not just any color, but Eastmancolor, which is very lush and warm and gorgeous. I am watching this film as a person of the 21st century, and consequently, my reaction to Eastmancolor film stock is not, “Wow! This is the cutting-edge film technology of our era,” but rather, “Golly, how nostalgic!” The filter is irrevocably placed over my eyes, therefore. I see Eastmancolor and think lavish 1950s films. The King and I. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. North by Northwest. Somehow, I expect the era itself to be infused with the same richness of color as the films portraying it. I expect to breathe the cool space-age freon optimism of a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe skyscraper. So, while watching Black Orpheus, I feel easily tempted to revel in the nostalgia of this era.
And, of course, there’s the music! This is the film which made Luiz Bonfá, Antônio Carlos Jobim, and João Gilberto international superstars and which popularized both samba and bossa nova. Of course, not only was Basquiat impressed, but also Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz, and others. If for no other reason, this film should be respected on the impact that it had on the music world. Now, finally, people were starting to pay attention to Latin music.
Okay, but let us say that we tried to make this film today. Would we tolerate it? Well, I suppose we might. Look at how well Amélie rated in the theatres and among critics, and what is this film but a love letter to The Red Balloon, Truffaut and French New Wave? However, as Serge Kaganski reminded us in Inrokuptibles, the 18th Arrondissement where Amélie lives is meticulously purged of graffiti, but it is also empty of Arabs, Pakistanis, gays. Indeed, the only Arab who appears in the film is oddly named Lucien. We can perhaps excuse the films of yesterday for rendering minorities invisible if we are generous enough to believe the people living half a century ago were merely ignorant, but to make the same error again today when we know better is inexcusable. Yes, on one hand, Amélie is the charming tale of a socially inept woman falling in love with an equally clumsy man, but this nostalgic utopia where this love story is centered gives the rather ugly impression that utopia is defined as the absence of the Other.
So it is with Black Orpheus. We know upon entering the film’s universe that we are in the mythical world of the musical. Shopkeepers spring into the street cheerfully selling their wares, as Eurydice like some enchanted Disney heroine causes all she encounters to shine with radiant joy. The favelas give the impression of being almost utopian. There is no stench, no open sewage pit. This is not the favela of City of God, by any stretch of the imagination. No, here you feel as though you could actually make a comfortable life for yourself. Credit is easy (a kiss on the bald head of the Portuguese grocer is payment enough) and weather is always pleasant. Mosquitoes know better than to linger around. The only danger, the Chekov’s gun as it were, is the sharp precipice. “If only they could have built their shanty town a little farther away from the cliff, or if only they could have been persuaded to build a guard rail,” one is tempted to think.
With musicals, I think we can be expected to let some things slide. The purpose of such films is escapism. Thus, we do not watch An American in Paris to remind ourselves that post-war reconstruction left Europeans in crippling poverty or that only a thousand kilometers away in Berlin, the scaffolding for the Cold War was all around. We ignore the fact that the film set is actually located in a Hollywood studio and instead luxuriate in the Gershwin melodies.
Thus, from a certain perspective, one can agree with The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, who suggests that Obama is “too tough on it.” After all, it’s just a musical. Also, it portrays blacks in a generally good light. Additionally, Camus actually treats the Macumba ritual with considerable sensitivity, especially when one compares Camus’s treatment with “voodoo” horror films of its time–and even of our own (consider animist rituals in Indiana Jones movies, for instance). Finally, Camus’s filming of favela life was actually a step in the right direction, considering the last person to attempt to film one was Orson Welles, and his film, It’s All True, got shelved before he could complete it. Up until this point, we were treated to films such as Flying Down to Rio, featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Later films, made under the influence of the Good Neighbor Policy, believed that portraying Latin America in its best light also meant, like Astaire and Rogers’ film, to feature middle-class and wealthy European sections of Latin America. So, one must give Camus credit where credit is due. He exposed the favela. That said, he made everyone associate favelas with Carnival rituals.
The portrayal of Carnival and the favelas, though, are from an outsider’s point of view, even if the actors of the film and the playwright are Brazilian. To paraphrase Gary Giddons in Black Orpheus and that Bossa Nova Sound, a French person telling the story and winning a Palme d’Or for a film about Carnival would be treated with as much chagrin if a foreign filmmaker were to tell the story of American baseball. This is Carnival and the favela as a foreigner would like to believe it. If we are willing to remind ourselves that Black Orpheus is escapist and about as true to Brazilian life as An American in Paris is to French life, we might derive legitimate pleasure from the film. And, indeed, why shouldn’t we?
However, again, I can see why Barack Obama may have been frustrated with his mother’s reaction to the film. The fact was–and is–that many of us do fall for this escapist vision and call it reality. And, again, when we are watching escapist films, we must ask ourselves what it is that we are escaping from. I am reminded of Vicente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky, another movie with great music and choreography, but one which submits to simplistic caricatures of African Americans. If there is something we are escaping from in Black Orpheus, then doesn’t it seem reasonable, as others have suggested, that it is that poverty and race relation problems are real?
So, if President Obama were still listening to my long ramble, he might say something like, “I forgot. Did you say you liked this movie or not?” To which I would say, “Yes, but with reservations.”
Criterion provides a couple of online video essays which are quite fascinating. Be sure to take a look!
Black Orpheus: Revisiting Black Orpheus: an interview with NYU film professor Robert Stam
Black Orpheus and that Bossa Nova Sound: an interview with Village Voice’s jazz critic Garry Giddins and Brazilian journalist and bossa nova scholar Ruy Castro.