Marcel Camus' 1959 Golden Palme winner Black Orpheus is a study in filmmaking genius. Set against the background of Carnival in Rio in one of the outskirt's poor favelas, it retells the classic tale of Orfeus and Eurydice. Camus' film is no somber dramatic greek tragedy however. Everything in the film, from the first scene to the last, is set against the background of joyous singing and dance. Dance it might be argued is a character in the film itself, part of the very soul of the inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro, and nowhere do we see this better than in the children of the favela, who are able to out-dance the best of us by the time that they are barely able to walk. Antonio Carlos Jobim's sublime "A Felicidade" accompanies the opening scene, followed by other bossa nova songs by Luiz Bonfá such as "Manhã de Carnaval" and "Samba of Orpheus."
When the movie opens, the young Orfeu (Breno Mello) is a lady's man indeed. He has a whole set of beautiful women to choose from, some wild , like the crazed Mira who is hell-bent on marrying him, others sultry: but it is his neighbor Serafina's cousin (Lea Garcia), the beautiful Eurydice, played by American-born Marpessa Dawn, a sweet and natural beauty who captures his heart. Orfeu is also an older brother of sorts to a young boy named Zeca whom he teaches to play the guitar. Eurydice, it turns out, is on the run from a man from her neck of the woods whom she is convinced is out to kill her. Orfeu lodges her in his little shack along with a whole host of animals that a biblical manger would envy: if I recall correctly there's a cat, a few chickens, a goat, a dog and some parakeets thrown in for authentic background noise. Eurydice, Orfeus-the die is cast, indeed!
But to my mind the true cinematic genius in Black Orfeus lies in Camus' brilliant adaptation of Vinicius de Moraes' play (Orfeu da Conceição), achieved with scriptwriting help from de Moraes and fellow Frenchman Jacques Viot. The opening scene links a pan of a Greek bas-relief to a veritable explosion of Samba. This remarkable synchronicity of video and audio is clever enough. But it is the figure of death that haunts the movie throughout. If I understand the director correctly, this figure, dressed in a black suit with bones painted in white on the front is both metaphorical and literal. We never find out who this death figure really is as he leaps throughout the film doing capoeira-like battle with everyone in his path. But as the vengeful Mira and other forces close in on the two star-struck lovers and as carnival reaches its colorful, fevered pitch, this black clad satan closes in on his victims as well. It's a tribute to Camus that he is able to meld the real and the magical, the metaphorical and the lyrical in ways that most Hollywood directors must envy. Do the others in the movie see the man in black? Yes and no. The answer really isn't that important in the end.
In the last scene of the film, day breaks on the children of the favela who believe that they can make the sun come out simply by playing the guitar. It's a lovely thought and one that we might remember given the continued conflict that roils the world, namely that each new day brings hope. Not in a schmaltzy, story book sense, but in the deep humanistic sense that the Greeks understood. And after all Orfeus will, one hopes, be reunited with Eurydice in the afterlife. If you just have faith-in life, in love, in mythology-whatever, then a new dawn is always just over the horizon. As the film closes two children, Benedito and Zeca, sit overlooking the bay. Benedito urges Zeca to play. As he does, the sun comes up and a little girl joins in. She gives Zeca a single white flower and the three children dance.
Black Orpheus is part of Symphony Space's "Classics in HD" series at The Thalia Theater this summer and reprises September 2nd. A complete listing of remaining films is available at: www.symphonyspace.org/events/series/.../classics-in-hd