BLACK ORPHEUS (ORFEU NEGRO)
Director of Programming, Austin Film Society
French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot, who tried to make INFERNO, a film we will visit in a few weeks, had a love-hate relationship with Brazil. In 1950 he had married Brazilian actress Vera Gibson-Amado, and for their honeymoon they traveled to her homeland – with a film crew. Clouzot intended to make a documentary film about life in the favelas, the poorer areas of Rio de Janeiro, but the government held back permits and insisted that he show Brazil in a better light by focusing away from the slums and more often on beaches and lovely homes of the rich. In short, make a travelogue that will entice tourists. To do what he wanted began to cost Clouzot too many cruzeiros through bribes to officials, so the director gave up and returned with Vera to France to make WAGES OF FEAR, LES DIABOLIQUES, and other films. Nonetheless, still intrigued by Brazil, he did write a book about his experiences there, Le cheval des dieux (1951).
When Clouzot heard that Marcel Camus intended to make his sophomore feature film in Brazil, the more experienced filmmaker warned him of the impossibility of shooting films there. Fortunately Camus ignored his advice. When ORFEU NEGRO was released in France in the summer of 1959, Clouzot was probably the most astounded audience member. Marcel Camus had not only made a film in Brazil, but he had set it in a favela of Rio de Janeiro, the very kind of location Clouzot had wanted for his documentary. When BLACK ORPHEUS went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes (1959) and then the Oscar for Best Foreign Film (1960), the whole film world seemed to be celebrating the fact that a French filmmaker had successfully made such a beautiful and lyrical film where many said it could not be done. Camus proudly told an audience at Cannes after the screening of BLACK ORPHEUS, "Brazil is the easiest place in the world to be French."
Despite the international accolades, there were certainly opponents of the film. The French New Wave writers/directors didn’t like it, since they basically didn’t appreciate any pre-1960 French film (“le cinema du papa”). Some Brazilian officials chimed in with the same tired old complaints about films which only showed poor people and misrepresented Brazil, as if films have to be balanced and show “all sides” in two hours or less. Yet, there were also leftist critics who said that ORFEO NEGRO made the poor people appear to be too happy – dancing “all the time” despite their poverty. Audiences throughout the world apparently ignored the criticism from right and left and simply enjoyed the film for what it was.
First and foremost BLACK ORPHEUS is a love story full of music and sensuality. To require deep political analysis in a musical romance is rather misguided. People in love don’t care about much of anything but their own joyful feelings, especially when fresh and new. WEST SIDE STORY, while set in New York City, incorporates ethnic gang members and their families as the main protagonists, but no one should expect the film to be an accurate sociological study of gangs and their dynamics. AN AMERICAN IN PARIS certainly was not conceived as a critique of expatriate Americans who dance in the streets at the drop of a beret. Musicals are escapism, and just because the setting of BLACK ORPHEUS is in a “real-life location,” the film’s purpose is not to dwell on the tragedy of poverty. Just as Carnival is a time of escapism for the inhabitants of Rio and other Brazilian cities, the film lifts audiences out of the mundane, out of sorrows into a realm of music, dance, bright colors, and beautiful people in a setting with glorious, uplifting views of the ocean and startling mountains.
The film is based on one of the grand love stories of Western civilization: Orpheus and Eurydice. In the classic Greek myth Orpheus was considered the most wonderful of all musicians, who composed songs about the beginning of the universe, battles among the deities, and mystical transformations of people into flowers or birds. His singing and lyre playing seemed to put people, rivers, and rocks into a trance. Orpheus traveled with Jason and the Argonauts, calmed their nerves during storms and battles, and saved the sailors from the deadly songs of the Sirens. After many adventures with Jason, Orpheus returned to Greece, where he fell in love with the beautiful Eurydice. But on the very day of their marriage, the joyful young woman was bitten by a poisonous snake and died. Devastated by his loss, Orpheus became determined to go to Hades, where all the dead travelled, and seek the return of his beloved. His music beguiled the boatman Charon, who agreed to take the young man across the River Styx into the underworld. With his music Orpheus charmed all the guardian demons and spirits of Hades. Finally standing before Pluto and Persephone, King and Queen of the Underworld, Orpheus presented his petition through song. Moved to compassion, Pluto summoned Eurydice and said that the two lovers might return to the world of the living, but only if Orpheus did not look at his wife until they were both out of Hades back on the surface of the earth. The musician walked before Eurydice, but when he first saw sunlight breaking through a crack overhead, he joyfully turned to Eurydice, who was still bathed in shadows. He had broken his promise to Pluto, and his beloved faded from sight, forever lost to Orpheus and the land of the living. Bereft, he returned to his homeland in Thrace, never loved another woman, and sang even sadder songs to the animals and trees until his death. Only then could he be reunited with Eurydice in Hades.
With this legend in mind, French filmmaker Marcel Camus and veteran screenwriter Jacques Viot adapted a musical play, Orfeo da Conceição (1956), by Brazilian poet/composer/playwright Vinicius de Moraes. Composer/pianist Antonio Carlos Jobim had already written music for the play, so when Camus was ready to make the film of ORFEO, he naturally turned to Jobim, who along with Luiz Bonfá, had meanwhile become two of the major composer/singers of the new bossa nova style, music with origins in the traditional samba of Brazil mixed with melodic jazz. The film BLACK ORPHEUS would quickly spread bossa nova around the world and by the early 1960s, both Brazilian musicians and American jazz artists would find common ground with the style.
Without access to the play by Vinicius de Moraes, I have no way of knowing how much Camus depended on its dialogue, settings, and events. One source says that the playwright did not like the movie, but I can’t confirm that elsewhere. Whatever, in the final version of the film, we see three major characters: Orfeo, Eurydice, and Mira. As a trolley conductor, Orfeo has some status within his neighborhood of shanties high on a mountainside overlooking Rio. But he still has to pawn his guitar from time to time. He is extremely handsome and loved by many women. Being young, he is still enamored of flirtations and is unquestionably a womanizer, but the vivacious and sensual Mira seems to have the upper hand. So much so that she drags him to the marriage bureau to apply for a license, makes him buy a ring (with her money), and tells all the neighbors that they will be husband and wife. But then a lovely girl from the countryside comes to visit her cousin Serafina, who is Orfeo’s immediate neighbor. Eurydice is shy and quiet and immediately captures Orfeo’s attention and heart, but not in the usual way the other more forward women have. He seems genuinely in love with the young woman and begins actively courting her with his guitar playing and his mellow singing. It becomes quickly obvious that she is falling in love, too, but there is something dark and frightening that has followed her from her hometown – a stalker who appears in Rio dressed as Death.
This could have all made a simple little suspense film, but it is wonderfully changed by the place and time of the setting – three days, before, during, and after Carnaval, the gigantic pre-Lenten celebration (akin to Mardi Gras in New Orleans and introduced into Brazil in 1641) that features non-stop music, dancing, and singing by joyful people dressed in costumes. Considering that the time frame is truly less than 72 hours, I have to laugh at people who criticize the film for representing Brazilian people as “dancing all the time.” Even a director I respect, Glauber Rocha, who made powerful neo-realist films of the impoverished Northeastern areas of Brazil in the 1960s, disappoints me with his simplistic criticism of the musical BLACK ORPHEUS. Carnaval is a time of complete release from troubles, poverty, and oppression. The dancers from Orfeo’s neighborhood represent the sun, the moon, and stars. They have become celestial beings, removed from shanties and hard lives, if just for a few days. The structural order of society is turned upside down, and the poor can dress in fanciful ways, including in the costumes of the wealthy colonizers of the 17th and 18th centuries, the former slave-owners. Toward the end of the film, Orfeo sings to Eurydice, “The happiness of the poor is the great illusion of carnival. We work hard all year long….” So, it isn’t as if Orfeo and filmmaker Camus were blind to the surrounding poverty. The residents of the favelas simply have a day of respite, of release from reality. They put creative energy into their costumes and dance routines. They practice their choreography and compose new songs which they accompany with their feet and bodies. They are well aware of the reality they will return to, but for the moment they can be lifted up through communal dance.
Naturally since ORFEO NEGRO is the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, no matter how joyful the Brazilian setting is, Eurydice must die. Instead of the bite of a snake, Camus chose an even more tragic means of causing her death – accidentally and tragically, at the hands of Orfeo. It is as if Death cannot kill her, but her fear of Death and Orfeo’s well-intentioned attempts to protect her will take her into the arms of Death.
So bereaved is Orfeo that he cannot accept the fact of her death. He is taken to a place of candomblé, an African Brazilian religion which emphasizes performance, dance, and possession by orishas (spirits of gods) or by deceased humans. In this way Orfeo receives a message from the dead Eurydice, from a possessed woman who looks rather like Eleanor Roosevelt. For his journey to Hades he enters a huge government building nearly empty of people but full of stacks of documents about missing persons. Eventually he makes his way to the morgue where he is finally able to retrieve the body of Eurydice. Walking all the way from the center of the city up the steep hillside leading to his home, Orfeo sings to his beloved lying in his arms. Rather than losing her forever, Orfeo will be truly reunited with her through the uncontrollable fury of Mira, his once betrothed, now no longer beloved.
For his cast, Camus chose wisely. Marpessa Dawn (1934-2008), who played Eurydice, was apparently already living in France when Camus met her. She was born in Pittsburgh but moved as a teenager to England for some film acting jobs (THE WOMAN EATER, 1958 ) before going on to France, where she continued acting in both films and television, as well as working as a governess. She never had another success like BLACK ORPHEUS, and eventually her acting career and night club appearances dried up. Married twice and mother of five children, she died in August 2008, six weeks after the death of her co-star, Breno Mello (1931-2008), who had played Orfeo. I have no way of knowing if they even kept in touch, but they seemed to be linked in death even in real life. Mello was actually a soccer player when discovered by Camus for the role of Orfeo. Despite the international success of the film, Mello only acted in subsequent movies sporadically. Just as Marpessa Dawn, he was married twice and had five children before dying in 2008. Many of the other actors came from a local theater troupe in Rio.
The final scene of BLACK ORPHEUS nearly always makes my eyes well up with tears, not of sorrow, but of hopefulness. The two boys, Benedito and Zeca, who have idolized Orfeo and who have listened closely to his music, have totally believed that he sings the sun up every morning. Now it is their turn, especially Zeca who has learned the sunrise song. He will apparently be the next Orfeo, as the two boys, joined by a sweet little girl, dance a samba and return joy to the screen despite the death of Orfeo and Eurydice. Indeed, Orfeo had told them, as if recognizing his own impermanence, "There was an Orpheus before me, and there will be one after me." Creativity will continue.
• “Carnival," Wikipedia
• David Ehrenstein, BLACK ORPHEUS
• James Parks and Sally Corbett, “Orpheus,” 1997
• "Candomble," Types of Religion
• “Black Orpheus Star Dawn Dead,” 29 September 2008, WENN
• Tia Williams, “Marpessa Dawn,” Essence, July 26, 2010,
• Daniel Yates, IMDB bio of Marcel Camus [1912-1982]
• Glenn Heath, Review of Black Orpheus blu-ray release, Slant, 2010
• James Kendrick, BLACK ORPHEUS
• Chris Galloway, Review of BLACK ORPHEUS blu-ray release
• "Orpheus," Wikipedia
• Michael Atkinson, Black Orpheus
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