Before Marcel Camus's Black Orpheus showed up on American and European screens in 1959, what would later be known to many as the 'art film' came in only a few different ways: Bergmanesque existentialism, Japanese samurai epics, Italian neorealism, and the French New Wave. No one was ready for the emergence of this Brazilian film which suddenly created an intercultural awakening, from Cannes to L.A. to Tokyo, as suddenly filmgoers knew the fiery excretory power of the South American sun, the lush tropical colors of Brazilian style, the dizzying, frantic blast of relentless samba, and the daily life within the slums of Rio, all of it bouncily revolving around the classic Orpheus myth and the swoony and lively fervor of the Carnival. For decades Black Orpheus has been one of the most popular films ever imported to the U.S., as audiences were immediately dazzled, overjoyed and memorized by the films colorful cast of characters, its delightful romance and tragedy, its unceasing tropical swelter, and for its beautiful and extravagant musical numbers of shimmies, bops, and wails, which rhythmically go along with its energized aerobic dancing. Black Orpheus went on to win the Palme d'Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival as well as the 1960 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, as it became one of the most remarkable one-hit wonders in film history. Camus, the director was a Frenchmen who had assisted director Jacques Becker in the late 1940s and 1950's, went to Brazil after directing only one feature, became extremely intoxicated by Carnival, and made Black Orpheus and a handful of other films, before moving on to Cambodia for a project, and then back to France.
The movie opens with an image of a white Greek bas relief that explodes to reveal men dancing the samba to drums in a favela, with a young boy flying a kite in the sky. Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) arrives in Rio de Janeiro, and is invited on a trolley driven by Orfeo (Breno Mello). "Hey there, climb aboard! New to the city, she rides forlornly to the end of the line. Orfeo introduces her to the station guard, Hermes (Alexandro Constantino), who gives her directions to the home of her cousin Serafina (Léa Garcia).
Although engaged to Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), Orfeo is a playboy and not very enthusiastic about the upcoming marriage. Orfeo and Mira go to get a marriage license. When the clerk at the courthouse hears Orfeo's name, he jokingly asks if Mira is Eurydice, annoying her. "Just an old story. I was being funny," he says.
Afterward, Mira insists on getting an engagement ring. Though Orfeo has just been paid, he would rather use his money to get his guitar out of the pawn shop for the carnival. Mira finally offers to loan Orfeo the money to buy her ring.
Eurydice has run away to Rio to hide from a strange man who she believes wants to kill her saying to Serafina, "A man who came to the farm and kept chasing after me. I'm sure he wants to kill me." Serafina reassures Eurydice that she should be safe here with her as she introduces Eurydice to young Benedito who immediately finds her beautiful and gives her an amulet.
Orfeo, Mira, and Serafina are the principal members of a samba school, one of many parading during Carnival, and so when Orfeo returns home, he tries to have Serafina distract Mira, so he can get some practice time to play with his guitar. Mira is a jealous and violent woman, and will not let any woman stand in her way of claiming her man.
While Orfeo is inside practicing Benedito comes in with Zeca and the two ask him, "Can you really make the sun rise just by playing your guitar?" Orfeo says he can as the guitar is marked 'Orfeo is my master' with Orfeo saying, "There was an Orpheus before me, and there may be another after I'm gone, but for now I'm the boss," as Orfeo decides to play a new song he just wrote to the children.
Orfeo is pleased when discovering that Eurydice is Serafina's sister and is staying next door with her. Orfeo flirts with Eurydice saying, "Orpheus likes Eurydice,' as he story goes. Try to remember it's a very old story." Eurydice quickly pulls away and Orfeo says, "No, you're too young to remember." Eurydice says, "I do. I remember the words you sang. But it was the melody I liked best." Orfeo realizes he has offended Eurydice and asks her if she can forgive him as he rests his head on her hands and she tenderly rubs his head.
During the Carnival, Orfeo doesn't necessarily want to dance with Mira, and he pulls Eurydice away so Serafina can make her a costume for the Carnival. "It's him," Eurydice suddenly screams when seeing Death and makes a run for it. When Orfeo tries to go after Eurydice, Mira orders him not too, saying, "If you go..." but he ignores her. Benedito tried to stop the mysterious stranger but was thrown to the ground.
Orfeo runs after Death and pulls out a knife to stop him from harming Eurydice and Eurydice tells Orfeo that the man will kill him and suddenly passes out in Orfeo's arms. Death says, "Take care of her. I'm not in any hurry. We'll meet again later." Orfeo's carries an unconscious Eurydice back to Serafina's home saying, "You're in my arms Eurydice. I'll protect you always, from everything. You'll never be frightened again."
Meanwhile Chico Serafina's sailor boyfriend makes a surprise arrival and Serafina is delighted, and so Orfeo offers to let Eurydice sleep in his home, while he takes the hammock outside. Eurydice invites him to her bed.
Early the next morning Benedito arrives to drop off Orfeo's guitar. Orfeo plays a song while waking up Eurydice while the children run out to see Orfeo raise the sun.
Serafina decides to have Eurydice dress in her costume during the second day of Carnival so that she can spend more time with her sailor. A veil conceals Eurydice's face; only Orfeo and young Benedito is told of the deception.
During the Carnival parade, Orfeo dances with Eurydice rather than Mira, which greatly irritates her. While dancing Benedita and Eurydice both notice Death, while Eurydice loses Benedito's amulet, and it gets stepped on and crushed. While Orfeo gets called up the jury stand Mira realizes that Orfeo has been dancing with Eurydice to whole time (Death purposely reveals it) when Mira spots Serafina among the spectators. Mira furiously confronts Eurydice and rips off her veil. Eurydice is forced once again to run for her life first from Mira, then from Death. Hermes grabs Eurydice to go to his house and she'll be safe there.
Eurydice gets lost on the way there, and gets trapped in Orfeo's own trolley station. While hanging from a power line to get away from Death Eurydice is killed accidentally by Orfeo when he turns the power on and electrocutes her. Death tells Orfeo "She's mine now," before knocking him out.
Distraught, Orfeo wakes up and Hermes and Benedito inform Orfeo that Eurydice is dead. Orfeo cannot believe it and quickly leaves heading to the office of Missing Persons. The building is deserted at night, with only a janitor sweeping up stacks of papers. The janitor says, "Are you in pain my brother? Keep calling to her. She'll come. Your voice alone isn't strong enough, and these papers can't answer you back. Come, by brother. I know where to take you."
Taking pity on Orfeo, the janitor takes him down a large darkened spiral staircase (a reference to the mythical Orpheus' descent into the underworld) and to a Macumba ritual, a regional form of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé. At the gate, there is a dog named Cerberus, after the three-headed dog of Hades in Greek mythology. During the ritual, the janitor tells Orfeo to call to his beloved by singing. The spirit of Eurydice inhabits the body of an old woman and speaks to him. Orfeo wants to gaze upon her, but the spirit of Eurydice says, "No, you mustn't look back Orfeo, or you'll never see me again. Do you love me enough to hear my voice but not see me?" Believing it to be a trick Orfeo's turns and looks, seeing the old woman, and Eurydice's spirit departs (as in the Greek myth.)
Orfeo wanders in mourning during the early morning and collapses on the pavement. Hermes and Benedito arrive by his side. Orfeo says to them, "I'm poorer than the poorest black man." Hermes says, "We're all poor and the only words left for us are those of the poor man: Thank you." Orfeo's begs for mercy and Hermes gives him an envelope of Eurydice's body at the morgue. Hermes says to Orfeo "I've done all that had to be done. I think you'll find true mercy there." Orfeo deeply thanks Hermes and goes to retrieve Eurydice's body from the city morgue. While carrying her in his arms across town and up the hill toward his home Orfeo says to Eurydice: "Everything's beautiful Eurydice. My heart's like a bird whose thirst is quenched by a single dewdrop. Thank you, Eurydice. Thank you for this new day. It's who's carrying me. I rest in our arms like a sleeping child, and from the sweet breath in your bosom, I know you'll take me where I must go. The path you've chosen is laden with flowers. The sun is rising to welcome us, my love. Sing, Eurydice...The happiness of the poor...Is like the great illusion of Carnival. We work all year long..." When arriving to the top of the mountain Orfeo comes to the realization that his shack is burning. A vengeful Mira, running amok, flings a stone that hits him in the head and knocks him over a cliff to his death.
Two children, Benedito and Zeca, who have followed Orfeo around throughout the film, believe Orfeo's tall tale that his guitar playing causes the sun to rise every morning. After Orfeo’s death, Benedito insists that Zeca pick up the guitar and play so that the sun will rise. Zeca plays and the sun comes up. A little girl appears, gives Zeca a single flower, and the film ends with the three children dancing.
From the moment of its first appearance, at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959—where it won the Palme d’Or—it was clear that Black Orpheus was a very special film. Taking the ancient Greek myth of a youth who travels to the land of the dead to bring back the woman he loves, and transporting it to the slums of modern day Rio de Janeiro, this bittersweet romantic tragedy has charmed audiences the world over with its beauty, color, and—above all—its music. In fact, so important is Black Orpheus’ musical dimension that you might say the film’s roots aren’t in images but in sounds.
The first shot shows an ancient frieze of the lovers, Orpheus and Eurydice. But what grabs your attention as it hits the screen is the sound of the music playing underneath it—a guitar softly strumming the chords of the film’s main musical theme. A mood of quiet reverie is created only to be shattered almost immediately as the frieze explodes before our eyes, only to be replaced by a series of fast-moving shots of dancers preparing for Carnival. But even these colorful sights are undercut by a sound that, beginning here, runs through the length of the film—the eruptive, convulsive, infectious beat of the Latin American pop sound known as “bossa nova.”
Though bossa nova had been the cornerstone of Latin American music for many years, it’s safe to say that prior to the release of Black Orpheus the world at large had never really heard it before. The film changed the world of music overnight. Its composers, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfá, became international stars. The film’s main themes, “Manha de Carnival” and “O Nossa Amor,” permeated the public consciousness in a way that hadn’t been seen since Anton Karas’ unforgettable zither theme for The Third Man. But make no mistake, none of these musical glories would have been possible without the film that holds them all together—Black Orpheus.
The Orpheus of myth was the son of the god Apollo and Calliope, a muse. His singing tamed wild beasts and quieted raging rivers. The Orpheus of the film is a lowly streetcar conductor whose singing makes him a favorite of the slum neighborhood where he lives. The original Eurydice was likewise high-born when compared to the film’s heroine—a simple country girl visiting the big city of Rio for the first time in her life. Ordinarily saddling such everyday characters with mythological barnacles would make for dramatic awkwardness. But thanks to the context of Carnival it all works perfectly. A once-a-year blowout where rich and poor alike can masquerade in whatever identities they choose, Carnival is the ideal setting for sliding a mythical mask over commonplace reality. And director Marcel Camus proves to be quite adept at juggling this balancing act between the fantastic and the real.
The figure of Death that pursues Eurydice through the streets of Rio could be the literal personification of fate—or the sort of everyday maniac found on the streets of any major city. Likewise, Eurydice’s death from a streetcar cable is a neat transposition of the original legend in which she died from a serpent’s bite on her leg. Best of all is the film’s climax, in which Orpheus visits the underworld—here represented by Rio’s Bureau of Missing Persons—and a Macumba ceremony in which he tries to make contact with his dead love. As in the legend, the story of the film ends on an unhappy note. Still this nominally sad conclusion is undercut by the spirit of the largely unprofessional cast (Breno Mello was a champion soccer player, Marpessa Dawn a dancer from Pittsburgh); director Camus’ obvious love for Rio and its people; and the joyous, rapturous, unforgettable musical score.
Before Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus showed up on American and European screens in 1959, what would later be known as the “art film” came in only a few shades of glum: Bergmanesque existentialism, Japanese samurai tragedy, stories of Italian peasant life, French protonoir. No one thought to buckle up when a Brazilian movie arrived in town, and what happened then was close to an intercultural awakening, from Cannes to L.A. to Tokyo—suddenly, filmgoers knew the fiery power of the South American sun, the frantic colors of Brazilian style, the dizzying blast of relentless samba, and the rangy life lived in the slums of Rio, all of it bouncily packaged around the Orpheus myth and the swoony fervor of Carnival. It was difficult not to be dazzled—Black Orpheus stood for decades as one of the most popular films ever imported to the U.S., and people who encountered it midcentury have loved it their whole life.
Certainly, Black Orpheus is one of the most remarkable one-hit wonders in film history. Camus, a Frenchman who had assisted Jacques Becker in the late 1940s and 1950s, went to Brazil after directing only one feature (Fugitive in Saigon), became intoxicated by Carnival, and made Black Orpheus and a handful of other, sparsely distributed films there, before moving on to Cambodia for a project and then back to France. After that, he directed a fair amount of episodic TV, dying in 1982. Camus claimed to be a lifelong adherent of Orphism, a pre-Christian stew of reincarnation beliefs and purgatorial atonement, but because of his sparse résumé, Black Orpheus is hardly open to an auteurist appreciation—it stands alone, in the heat and on hotsy-totsy legs. It is, of course, exposed to the kinds of sociopolitical readings that have become de rigueur in the years since it appeared, and it’s easy to look at Camus’ film with a jaundiced eye and see a white European man’s romanticized, even orientalist, portrait of poor brown third worlders, for whom poverty is one long, breathless party.
But let’s stop right there and consider that Carnival itself is surely proof that these poor people party well enough without any help from white Europeans, thank you, and that frowning on Black Orpheus for its rainbow romanticism is akin to damning the very musical traditions it celebrates. Before the late fifties, when bossa nova exploded around the world—thanks in part to the success of this film—Americans thought of Carmen Miranda when they thought of South American culture, and her persona and songs were only the tritest charades of ethnicity. But the music that runs through Black Orpheus like a river is authentically native, and the rampant intoxication of the film’s characters is not feigned, broadly speaking, for our benefit but is actually a manifestation of an entire culture exulting in its own self-expression. Camus uses a local, all-black cast of nonprofessional actors and heaps in vast swatches of Carnival footage, in case we were in doubt. You see the same identification between a society and its giddy discovery of voice in The Gold Diggers of 1935, Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and Tony Gatlif’s Latcho drom (1993).
Exultation is the word to use, because whatever else you make of Camus’ film, it is an explosion of life love, a cataract of élan. Viewers in 1959 and beyond couldn’t be blamed for thinking that they’d never seen sunlight properly filmed before. There is, indeed, no overestimating the degree to which cinematographer Jean Bourgoin’s Eastmancolor images rearranged fifties audiences’ perceptions of Rio and its steep favelas (cleaned up though they were), nor can we ignore the sheer opiate effect of so much raging human color, sweat, rhythmic movement, and tropical swelter. (Bourgoin’s versatility has also been undersung—astonishingly, he’d shot the black-and-white shadow nightmare of Welles’s Mr. Arkadin four years earlier.) Black Orpheus is, of course, a stylized daydream, a vision of an entire city that won’t stop dancing, but still, the full thrust of “native cinema,” moderated though it was, may never have been so vividly experienced by mainstream Americans and Europeans. Those two ideas—visual spectacle and cultural import—cannot be separated here, particularly considering the extraterrestrial excess of Carnival, a one-of-a-kind optical drug. (“No one can resist the madness!” someone says.) The overall effect is of the whole story unfurling while an epic, unceasing musical number shimmies, bops, and wails in the background.
Has any other movie worked up this kind of spritz, before or since? It’s not a small matter, either, to notice Black Orpheus’s unabashed sexiness, which like its music and aerobic joy—the film’s founding principles—radiates from it on an almost mythic scale. Given the film’s hedonistic program, it was a brilliant gambit to use the Orpheus-Eurydice legend as scaffolding: once you’re in the land of demigods and ancient archetypes, every human impulse can attain a cosmic weight, and what’s depicted concretely in Camus’ film is allowed to take on a metaphoric glamour, voicing all of humankind’s repressed desires and hungers. At the same time, Camus and his scenarist, Jacques Viot (working from a play, Vinicius de Moraes’s Orfeu da Conceição), don’t make a big deal about the mythological parallels—characters notice the confluence of names when trolley driver Orfeu (soccer pro Breno Mello) meets and falls for new girl in town Eurídice (Marpessa Dawn) and find the coincidence merely amusing.
Only children see the power of this singing Orpheus to wake the sun as he croons to his beloved in bed before the festivities begin. The couple’s wooing and the jealousy of Orfeu’s fiancée and the Carnival masquerade enabling the lovers to unite, all of it is giddy preamble to the tale’s mythic trial, complicated by the fact that Eurídice’s death is accidentally caused by Orfeu’s attempt to rescue her from fate (by literally turning on the lights). When Orfeu searches for his dead lover in the underworld, he begins in the spooky empty halls of federal bureaucracy and ends up at an Umbanda ritual peopled by nonactors obliviously absorbed in their prayers and succumbing to spiritual fits. It’s indicative of Camus’ astute taste and trust in his concoction that the mythic is simply another facet of reality, whether explicitly indexing the ancient tales or evoking the bacchic esprit of living, loving, and partying like the gods.
The happy synthesis extends to Carnival itself, which, we may recall, began as the ancient Roman Saturnalia, a seasonal weeklong party of indulgence, rebellion, and irresponsibility fostered to mollify the poor and enslaved. Its roots were mythological, and the holiday was bolstered by the storied participation of the Olympians, and served the same cathartic social function as the various trickster legends in virtually every primitive culture on earth—to unleash the collective id that society has been erected to discipline and let loose the dogs of fun. In Brazil, of course, where Lenten traditions from Europe are rocketed into the stratosphere, the fun is Homeric. As per legendary structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, myths mediate between radical extremes, primarily life and death, which frames the Orpheus story as the most famous mediation exercise in human history. In Camus’ version, we get the juxtaposition in full-frontal glory, the specter of skeletal death cavorting through Carnival’s exuberant thicket of life run amok.
Even so, Black Orpheus may be a sensual experience above all, a summery idyll like no other, from the sunrises on the hill to the airy tumbledown shack of Eurídice’s cousin (virtually the idealized set for a children’s TV show, albeit one with scantily clad Brazilians slinking in and out of costume) to the streets filled with ecstatic sambistas—with almost every corner of every shot crawling with kittens and jungle birds and farm animals. The Orpheus tragedy takes center stage, but the entirety of Camus’ movie insists, even before the infectious ending shot of the children boogying on the hill, that life will go on, and not in a stream but a torrent. If the king be dead, as the traditional myth cycles go, then long live the king, the parades, the hot-blooded rendezvous, the “wretched of the earth” expressing their appetite for life.
Art isn’t pedagogic about happiness and living, except when it happens to be. And although we could all do a lot worse than to take cues from Bogart’s quietly confident resolve or Greer Garson’s optimistic warmth or even Groucho Marx’s insouciant fearlessness, it is also true that some entire movies can reveal to us ways to conduct our lives, to make them lighter, more energetic, more forward-looking, and simply more pleasurable. In that sense, it’s possible that Black Orpheus may be unchallenged as a cinematic pathfinder to earthly bliss, a simple state of being where we worry about our quotidian trials less and dance a little more.
Black Orpheus is particularly renowned for its soundtrack by two Brazilian composers: Antônio Carlos Jobim, whose song "A felicidade" opens the film; and Luiz Bonfá, whose "Manhã de Carnaval" and "Samba of Orpheus" have become bossa nova classics. The songs sung by the character Orfeu were dubbed by singer Agostinho dos Santos. The film was an international co-production between production companies in Brazil, France and Italy, as lengthy passages of the film were shot in the Morro da Babilônia, a favela in the Leme neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro. Interesting tidbits are that actress Marpessa Dawn who played Eurydice was not from Brazil, but rather Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Actor Breno Mello was a soccer player with no acting experience at the time he was cast as Orfeu. Mello was walking on the street in Rio de Janeiro, when director Marcel Camus stopped him and asked if he would like to be in a film. Da Silva, the mysterious actor who played Death, was a triple jumper who won two Olympic gold medals, in 1952 and 1956.
It was brilliant to use the Orpheus-Eurydice legend for the weight of the films story, as using the world of demigods and ancient legends and archetypes; they're several dramatic directions a story can take. Camus and his scenarist Jacques Viot worked from a play called Orfeu da Conceicao, and even if they don't make a big deal about the mythological parallels, several character's still take notice of the names, like Orfeu, and even the clerk at the marriage courthouse make slight references or hints to it. Since all the characters are created strictly from the world of mythology, the characters within Black Orpheus are basic archetypes that are defined simply by their motivations and emotions and less by the subtleties of their personalities. Benedito and his best friend Zeca are curiously fascinated young boys, who believe Orfeu and of his guitar playing has the power to cause the sun to magically rise. Mira is extremely unlikable right from the first frame, as she not also is immediately materialistic with wanted an expensive wedding ring, but she also has radically violent and jealous tendencies over any woman who even dares bat an eye towards her man. Orfeo is the charming and lovable playboy who is unfortunately being forced into a marriage he doesn't necessarily want to be in, especially when meeting and falling for the enchantress Eurydice. Eurydice is the beautiful love interest who immediately falls for Orfeo, (reasons are purely for its storytelling) and masquerading as Serafina will enable the two lovers to reunite and dance with one another during the Carnival. Hermes is the wise father figure, and in many ways is the true hero of its story, as Serafina is the loyal cousin and friend of Eurydice, along with her bumbling and not so wise lover Chico. And lastly there is Death who masquerades in a stylized skeleton costume, trying to claim his next victim which is Eurydice. Death is the personification of fate, and can be looked at as any crazed killer on the street who prowls and stalks its victims. It's interesting that Eurydice's death is actually caused by Orefu, himself, when he attempts to rescue Eurydice from her fate from Death by turning off the lights. Her death from a streetcar cable is an interesting transposition from the original legend which had her die from a serpent bite on her leg. When Orfeu later goes searching for his dead lover within the empty halls of the federal bureaucracy, he is eventually led down a long twisted stairway by a janitor, and descents down into the underworld. This next sequence is probably the most fascinating parts of the film because Orfeo finds himself at an Umbanda ritual full of people who all seem to be non-actors, oblivious that the camera is even there, while completely absorbed in their prayers and spiritual fits. Orfeo gets involved in a Macumba ceremony in which he tries to make contact with his dead love, who suddenly appears to him through an elderly woman. Just like the legend, the film ends on a tragic and slightly depressing note, and yet its last sequence of the children dancing upon the hill, with one of the girls giving a boy a single flower, reassures the audience that life continues to go on, and long as we continue to celebrate, and always remember to never stop dancing.