Lawrence Russell

Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro, 1958) dir. Marcel Camus writ. Jacques Viot (adapt. Viot & Camus from "Orfeu da Corceicao" by Vinicius de Moraes) cine. Jean Bourgoin edt. Andre Feix assistant dir. Robert Mazoyer art. Loup Bonin costumes. Isabel Pons music Antonio Carlos Jobin & Louis Bonfa

star. Breno Mello (Orpheus), Marpessa Dawn (Eurydice), Lourdes de Oliveira (Mira), Lea Garcia (Serafina), Adhemar Feittera da Silva (Death) , Waldetar de Souza (Chico), Alexandre Constantino (Hermes)... Jorge dos Santos (Benedito), Aurino Cassiano (Zeca), Maria Alice

Dispatfilm (Paris), Gemma Cinematografica (Rome), Turpan (Sao Paulo) co-production

Janus Films

DVD: Criterion

samba, trance, and possession

Samba, n. Portuguese, derived from the West African bantu word "semba", meaning "invoke the spirit of the ancestors".

It was around 1930 before the Brazilian authorities allowed samba music to be part of the Rio Carnival. Long outlawed as a dangerous expression of black slave culture, it eventually gained legitimacy as a community recreation in the form of Samba Schools, who competed for prizes at festivals. The samba gained attention in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere with the highly popular 1934 Hollywood film Flying Down To Rio and later at the 1939 World Fair in New York, where the Brazilian Pavilion featured a samba orchestra and dancers. This in turn created a fad for the exciting 2/4 dance music on Broadway and inspired Orson Welles to visit Rio in 1942 and attempt a movie set in the Carnival. This movie was never completed, in part because Welles ran afoul the local authorities when he went into the surrounding hill communities in order to film a voodoo ceremony as part of the origin of the samba.

Without doubt, Black Orpheus achieves anything Welles was trying for and probably goes well beyond it. For a start, Marcel Camus had a script to work from whereas Welles was trying to wing it on the spot. Also, by the late fifties the advances in camera and film technology allowed Camus a far easier mobility. The comparison is merely for historical purposes, however, as Welles was attempting a documentary (with certain fictional aspects) whereas Black Orpheus is pure drama.

Mira, Queen of the Day Black Orpheus

To recreate the Orpheus-Eurydice legend using the Rio Carnival as the background sounds like the worst sort of theatrical expressionism, an artsy idea doomed to failure within the documentary context of location filming. Indeed, the script was based on a stage play by Vinicius de Moraes, and as we all know, the story is pure symbolism. The main characters retain the mythological names: Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes... even Cerebus, the dog from the gates of the underworld, puts in an appearance. So does Death, that stalwart of the morality play.... How can this possibly work within the documentary instinct of film? How can we suspend our disbelief? For one, this is Afro-Latin culture where a pagan-Christian nomenclature is more evident... and two, because the Carnival itself is a narrative, Black Orpheus functions as a story-within-a-story. The occasion calls for role-playing, and the principals are romantically enacting their destiny.

Superstition? History manifests as a deja vu, a cyclical progression of event and re-incarnation, understood only by the occultic transformation of samba, trance and possession, for which the Carnival is the engine.

a man scorned by beauty

A young beauty in white disembarks from a ferry, is startled by a blind peddler. Her agitation seems naive, an innocent overwhelmed by the ubiquitous carnival drumming and the dangerous festive vibe of the swarming revellers in the harbour region. Streamers, confetti, crowds of musicans and dancers. She becomes trapped in an impromptu samba circle as men leer or good-naturedly wolf-whistle. Who is she? Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), a young woman from the country, fleeing an unknown threat, seeking refuge with her cousin who lives in Babylon, a shanty-town in the hills above Rio.

As fate ordains it, she quickly meets Orfeu a.k.a Orpheus (Breno Mello), a handsome tramdriver and Lothario who just happens to lead a dance group as part of his community Samba School, known as the "Babilonia School". We follow Eurydice as she rides the tram from downtown Rio over a spectacular viaduct to the terminus, the proverbial "end of the line". The pre-Carnival fever continues, impressed by the urgent glass, steel and wood clatter of the samba. The main players within the ensemble are quickly introduced [not unlike the ambulatory opening of Welles' Touch of Evil]: Hermes, the genial old stationmaster who also fulfills his role as escort for the dead; Mira, the temperamentally erotic fiance of Orpheus and "Queen of the Day"; Benedito, the boy understudy for Orpheus who gives Eurydice an amulet to calm her anxiety; Serafina, Eurydice's playful cousin, the designated "Queen of the Night" ...and, of course, Death, the handsome phantom always seen and appreciated at any gathering of the beautiful and the damned.

Orpheus & Eurydice Death embraces Eurydice

As Eurydice is being fitted for a costume, Death makes his first appearance an unwelcome voyeur at the window. Eurydice bolts in terror, runs through the shadows of the morro, is trapped in a gully by this anonymous man in the gray bodysuit and skull mask. Orpheus jumps down the bank, whips out a switchblade, faces off against his rival. And who is this faceless costumed assassin from the Carnival? He could be an unsuccessful suitor from Eurydice's village, a man scorned by beauty... or merely a homicidal poseur for whom death, not love, is a biological instinct. His identity and motive remain concealed, so his role is pure symbolism. He backs away, is condescending, says, "Take care of her... I'm in no hurry... we'll meet soon."

Tragedy is always the desecration of beauty, as beauty is the antithesis of death. The choreography of the carnival is riddled with occultic symbolisms of life, death and the spirit world. Mira, Queen of the Day, is already highly suspicious of Eurydice. Serafina, Queen of the Night, executes the subterfuge that sees her cousin Eurydice assume her role, become the true Queen of the Night, a disguise that allows her to engage in the rhapsody of the samba and continue her affair with Orpheus. We notice that her costume and veil are blue, the traditional color used to ward off evil. However, she loses her amulet as she dances... and Mira can't be duped forever, of course, despite her assigned role in the dance circle. She rips off the Queen of the Night's headpiece, exposes Eurydice, tries to strangle her. This melodrama fits perfectly into the rhythmic madness of the carnival procession. Death, who's been watching from the crowd, takes up the pursuit.

It ends, of course, in the tramcar terminus, an industrial abattoir of dead machinery. Eurydice is pursued into the scaffolding of the power shop, jumps for the tramwire, where she dangles like a trapped butterfly. As Death lingers on a shadowy catwalk, Orpheus arrives, and stimulated by his lover's cries, throws the power switch, hoping to illuminate the situation. The irony is sublime, like death during climax.

voodoo, the old religion

Hermes and Bene find Orpheus unconscious at the scene... and when he comes to, tell him that Eurydice is dead, already en route to the mortuary. The distraught Orpheus -- full of disbelief, still in his gold dance costume -- searches the detritus of the Carnival as various casualties are taken away by ambulance. He eventually ends up in a large public building, "The Bureau of Missing Persons", where he encounters a solitary janitor sweeping, as it were, the discarded paper files of the lost. The janitor leads him down a spiral staircase and out of the building into the night. Three flickering candles on the pavement mark the building where a voodoo ceremony is underway. An angry dog called Cerebus greets them, but recognizes the janitor, a kindly figure who is really a surrogate for Hermes, the guide to the underworld.

Here, under the direction of the witchdoctor (who is smoking a cigar), the samba is in its most elementary form, a raw cacophony of primitive drumming, clapping, chanting... and the droning cries of the dancers who stagger on the edge of the astral plane, seeking possession and reincarnation.

Is there any catharsis? Does Orpheus reclaim Eurydice? Or does he become just another zombie, another fallen champion?

The orgiastic aspects of voodoo -- sex and the torture of animals -- are what relegate "the old religion" to the shadows of the occult. Yet as a source of the samba and the hypnogogic function of dance, the ancient rituals embrace both pagan and Christian cosmogonies and anticipate certain procedures in psychotherapy.

The brilliance of Black Orpheus is contained in both the visceral and the intellectual, as its narrative appeals to both instinct and reason. The fatalism of the lovers is a recognition of the cyclical movement of Time, just like Benedito's belief that the sunrise over Rio is evoked by Orpheus' love song. Mythology? Sooner or later all events become symbolism as the generations spin into the future.

Beautifully photographed and edited, with a lot of the action on the cliffs, Rio is always an ethereal tableaux in the background, its beauty tempered by our visual anxiety of the precipice, the lurking vertigo, as if these frolicking sambistas are always just two or three wrong steps from disaster... like our involuntary falls into the chasms within our dreams.

Black Orpheus quite rightly won the Palm d'Or in 1959 at Cannes. Back then, of course, it was seen as progressive because it featured black actors and the pluralist culture of modern Brazil. The sound score by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Louis Bonfa prefaced the coming jazz samba (bossa nova) movement of the sixties. Lyrical, vital, anthropomorphic, with marvellous characterizations and acting.

And... are the women really better looking in Rio?

© LR 11/02


*LR's new novel RADIO BRAZIL available from Amazon worldwide as paperback or eBook: Amazon USA, UK or eBay »»

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