Marcel Camus (director)
Criterion Collection (studio)
09 January 2017 (released)
11 January 2017
The Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice is flamboyantly retold against the colourful backdrop of Rio de Janeiro’s famous carnival. Breno Mello and Marpessa Dawn in the leads, plus a distinct bossa nova soundtrack (not to mention the famous song ‘A felicidade’) round up the exuberant spectacle.
Black samba dancers in a slum area of Rio are seen after a Greek basrelief made of marble breaks into pieces. In the next scene we see a pretty young woman in a white dress who is a passenger in a tram driven by a young man called Orfeo (Breno Mello). The woman (Marpessa Dawn) is the new kid in town and clearly lost which is why she stays in the tram until the end of the line is reached. When she reveals that she is looking for the house of her cousin Serafina (Léa Garcia) the station guard shows her the directions.
Meanwhile, the entire town seems in a frenzied fever as everyone gets ready for the annual carnival and we see the folks displaying their colourful goods, masks and fabric. Orpheus is engaged to Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), a hot-tempered beauty adamant to get ‘that ring’ on her finger. At the local courthouse the apply for a marriage license and when the clerk realises that the man’s name is Orpheus he teasingly asks whether his betrothed is called Eurydice. The pair have no idea what he’s talking about and the clerk explains the background of the ancient Greek tragedy. Somehow the viewer will already have guessed that the woman in the white dress who just arrived in town is Eurydice before she actually mentions her name…
What follows next is basically the story of the famous tragedy though of course with certain changes to suit the mood and landscape of Brazil.
Orpheus is more interested in his music and guitar playing than his looming marriage, he even has his first hardcore fans in the shape of two local kids called Benedito and Zeca. When Orpheus returns home to the slum area on the outskirts of town his seems pleased to learn that the mysterious woman stays next door with cousin Serafina and upon learning that her name is indeed Eurydice the fate of the two lovers seems sealed. As the carnival draws closer so too does a mysterious stranger dressed as ‘Death’… Eurydice confesses that the stranger follows her everywhere and threatens to kill her. Mira, meanwhile, tries everything to draw Orpheus’ attention to her 24/7 but he is already in love with Eurydice though like most men is too coward to break the news to Mira. In order for Eurydice to take part in the parade she wears a veiled outfit and only Orpheus and cousin Serafina know who is behind the veil… Now the stage is set for a breath-taking explosion of samba and bossa nova rhythms while hundreds of dancers and participants take to the street to join in the parade. Orpheus and Eurydice dance together but Death is close by. So is a suspicious Mira who finally rips the veil of Eurydice’s face and chases her along the street when she is stopped by Death who continues the chase instead. Hiding in the nearby tram station both Eurydice and Death embark on a deadly cat and mouse game. Orpheus finally arrives and in a desperate attempt to save his beloved he turn on the power in the dark station, not realising that Eurydice hangs from a power cable to evade Death. Electrocuted she falls to the ground dead. As ambulances arrive a confused and grief-stricken Orpheus refuse to believe she is dead and looks for her in the hospital and the missing persons office. Finally, a cleaner who pities the distressed many takes him to the ‘underworld’ in what turns out to be the film’s most intense and awe-inspiring scene (he even encounters a dog called Cerberus): at the basement of the building a strange magic ritual is carried out (akin to Haitian voodoo) which the locals call ‘macumba’. The ghost of Eurydice speaks through an old woman before vanishing forever. Orpheus carries the dead body of Eurydice back to his place in the slums when an infuriated Mira throws a stone at him, hitting him at the forehead with such force that tumbles backwards and falls to his death – with Eurydice’s corpse landing next to him. In the final scene we see the two boys Benedito and Teca playing Orpheus’s guitar, believing that their playing will cause the sun to rise every morning.
The award-winning Black Orpheus (or Orfeu Negro which the film is called in its original title) is a truly innovative and stunning re-working of the classic Greek saga. Marpessa Dawn and Breno Mello are simply magnificent in the lead roles and to add to the intensity of the story, both Mello and Dawn (neither were professional actors when cast for the film) died in 2008.
This stunning to look at Blu-ray edition also boasts some interesting Special Features! Language is Portuguese with English subtitles.