Criterion Cuts: “Black Orpheus”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

After last month’s 5-part horror extravaganza I found myself incredibly sick, which is why I took last week off. Hopefully I wasn’t missed too much, but it did allow some (admittedly necessary) recharge time heading into the holiday season. I’d love to put up a bunch of holiday related films here, but to be honest there just isn’t anything like that that I can tell in the collection. C’est la vie.

So instead we’ll just have to settle for great movies. I know, life is hard.

Black Orpheus (1959)

The whole history of cinema is littered with adaptations of plays and novels both incredible and terrible, and with it comes any amount of baggage based on that fact. You have the knee-jerk, Hollywood-out-of-ideas set, the ‘this is about a boring piece of literature, and thus boring’ group (I feel bad for the genuinely good Shakespeare adaptations that so frequently play to scores of apathetic teenagers in high schools on a regular basis), and then any number of complainers about how genuine the adaptation is compared to the original work. It’s an unenviable position.

Thankfully, when you decide to work with old enough material, you’re given free reign to basically do whatever you want with it. The end result is finally elevated to being more important than the trappings of the base work. Which is how it should be, I would argue, but there’s no escaping the scorn of fandoms large and small.

Which brings us to today’s movie, the 1959 film Black Orpheus, made in Brazil by French director Marcel Camus, an adaptation of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. If that sounds a little scattered… well, it is. But what results is a movie that rises above the sum of its parts to become a singularly unique experience.

We open on an image of typically white, sterile Greek statues, the kind most often associated with tales like these. But there’s barely enough time for the title to sit upon this image and we’re dropped into the middle of Rio de Janeiro, sun-drenched and in the middle of preparations for Carnival. The first characters we see are all black men, dancing the samba and dressed for a party, parading through one of the many favela on the slopes overlooking the city.

And just like that, new life is breathed into the old myth. We’re quickly introduced to trolley driver Orfeu, a young man popular with everyone, quick with charm and a smile and a tune on his guitar. As we open, he’s being dragged to the courthouse by his longtime fiancee Mira, strongarmed by her into applying for a marriage license despite a seeming lack of interest on his part. The official at the courthouse even jokes, when they give their names, whether Mira is Eurydice, the myth alive and well among a populace for whom folk legends seem to spread by word of mouth among the poor and as quick as the songs and dances going on out in the streets.

At the same time, in the shack next to Orfeu’s, his neighbor Serafina is greeted by the arival of her cousin Eurydice, having run away to Rio to hide from a man she claims wants to kill her. Serafina is happy to hide her away, and is happy when Orfeu and Mira arrive to give Orfeu a few moment’s peace from Serafina’s constant nagging by distracting her. Thus do Orfeu and Eurydice meet mostly by accident, and as myth dictates quickly fall in love.

Orfeu and Eurydice in one of their few quiet moments.

Even while Eurydice and Orfeu are trying to dodge Mira to keep their burgeoning love affair going, the man Eurydice is afraid of shows up nearly on her doorstep, dressed for Carnival in the guide of Death itself. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the myth knows how this turns out, but watching it play out among the backdrop of the wild colors and musical abandon of Carnival gives it a strange dichotomy, people exhausting themselves in a celebration of life while this story of death plays out before us.

What’s most interesting is how well the Greek myth adapts itself into this South American setting. The inescapable death feels right at home in the often grotesque stylings of the festivities, and legends such as pulling spirits from the underworld take an interesting turn when they’re married to the indigenous homegrown religions of the region (in this case Candomblé). This is a place that is married to storytelling, where music and belief have powers that belong more to antiquity than a recognizably modern setting.

In fact, one of the side plots revolves around Orfeu’s cult status among a group of local children. He’s convinced them that his guitar playing each morning is what causes the sun to rise, and so steeped in the oral traditions is this place so removed from our normal conceptions of modern civilization that they’re inclined to believe him. When at the end of the film one of the kids picks up a guitar and plays at dawn, one of the girls states ‘Now you are Orfeu,’ continuing the cycle of myth handed down from one generation to the other.

The death figure that pursued Eurydice through much of the film.

The constant cycle is only backed up by the soundtrack, which managed single-handedly to introduce bossa nova to Western audiences and drives the entire film with a sure hand towards the sounds that never seems out of place. It’s noticeable in ways many soundtracks aren’t, but it is supposed to be. It is as much a part of the local flavor and way of life as the bright, realistically sunshine days and wild costuming (as bright as any technicolor production but with a thousand times more verisimilitude).

The real triumph of Black Orpheus is, much more than its amazing presentation, is that it stands as one of the surest arguments for the continued appeal of ancient myths. These stories have relevance centuries after they’ve been told, a universal appeal that allows them to be based in any other culture and still retain their core essence, revealing new facets of the original story and of humanity in general through the ingenuity of inspired adaptation.

As a final bonus, here’s some of the great music from the film:

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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