Black Orpheus (1959)


Orpheus, but black
Orpheus, but black

Genre: Romantic Music Drama (Brazil Italy France)

Starring:  Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn

Directed By: Marcel Camus

Overview: A modern telling of the Orpheus myth takes the tragic love story of Orpheus and Eurydice to Rio de Janeiro during Carnival.

One doesn't need to know the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to enjoy Black Orpheus, but it helps a little at least, to know the Orpheus story. It'll certainly make Black Orpheus more... witty.

Without the knowledge of the original lore, this tale still stands alone well and anyone who at least has basic knowledge of Greek myth and its Stygian Hell will understand rather quickly that there's source material being referenced, it's really not subtle. This version takes place right in the middle of Carnival season in Rio de Janeiro. This black Orpheus, like his Greek counterpart, is indeed a talented musician and he's all set to marry Mira. All too soon however, he meets a girl from out of town named, you guessed it, Eurydice. She's in Rio to escape a villainous stalker whom she's convinced is out to kill her. He's costumed as Death, or at least a super-awesome version of the bullies in The Karate Kid. Amidst the massive party atmosphere, we explore the fresh love that Orpheus and Eurydice share, the people affected by it and and the dramatic conclusion, which we all know will lead Orpheus to some kind of trip to Hell in pursuit of his destined lover.

I was looking forward to seeing how the Greek myth would be treated with its modern twists. I was pleased with winks and nods like Hermes the conductor who constantly provided directions around town to Eurydice. Orpheus, naturally, is a talented singer, dancer and guitar player, but there's a touch of the superhuman implied when neighbour children asked if he's able to make the sun rise with his music. Orpheus proudly states that he can. Most tempting are the scenes having to do with the tragedy that splits the two lovers apart and Orpheus' 'trip to Hell'. My favourite shot was that gorgeous winding spiral staircase that went ever downward to a red basement. There's other neat little gimmicky moderns twists to the tale, but I shan't spoil any further.
This is, what We in the industry call, a 'visual aid'.
This is, what We in the industry call, a 'visual aid'.
Sadly, I say gimmicky because overall I found the film to be too slow for my liking. I may even go as far as to say it was a one-trick pony. Having seen, and was generally unimpressed by, the 1949 Cocteau version of Orpheus, I went into this film without any great expectation. Love stories like this aren't genuinely my bag, and like so many other films from 'The List', I approached this as another study film that would most likely not impress. The main problem I had with Black Orpheus was how many scenes dragged on. There was so much focus on the dancing and the music that its omnipresence became boring, and scenes were frequently in need of a shaving of two minutes here, four minutes there. And, although the actors were intentionally unprofessional, it was obvious, including children looking right at the lens. All this is certainly forgivable, but in the grand scheme of things, I've never heard of Black Orpheus ever being a 'must see' until The Big Book said so. All told, being a fan of film, there's always SOMETHING to enjoy - carnival and the music were sweet but overall, Black Orpheus is one for the pile. Like any hobbyist, I dig for something shiny - a HIDDEN GEM if you will! Usually I find nothing more than a decent skipping rock.
Thus, you can skip it.

 It's the REAL romantic who serenades a lady AFTER a good boinking.
It's the REAL romantic who serenades a lady AFTER a good boinking.

Performance: 7 Cinematography: 8 Script: 7 Plot: 6 Mood: 7

Overall Rating: 70% (Or Don't)
1001 Club Aftertaste:
Black Orpheus is the film that made me first wonder if 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die might actually have a secret agenda. Yes, Black Orpheus made me crazy paranoid about the overall value of the films within Steven Jay Schneider's book. I'm not talking about ever-heard 'this movie over this one' argument, but this question popped up, "How much did the good people at Criterion actually backroom-deal to have so many of their films featured in this great guide?" Well, instead of building a shack in the woods and going crazy, I read Black Orpheus' entry in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die to see why this mediocre film ended up in there. Academy Award and Golden Globe for best foreign film, the Palme D'Or at Cannes, and the first foreign film to feature an all-black cast, just to tip the iceberg. I'm ok now, feeling vindicated, or at the very least, not so nearly paranoid about a filmic conspiracy as I did when the final credits started rolling.

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I liked this one more than you did. While I agree that some shots go on too long, I found this film visually stunning throughout--there's a vibrancy here that's difficult to translate into words. I had far more issue with Orphee than with this.

I'll agree with you on that. I prefered this to the Cocteau version

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