“Black Orpheus” - Marcel Camus (1959)

Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro, 1959) is a wondrous film with a rich range of thematic features – romance, tragedy, music, dancing, life in Brazilian pardo favelas (poor, mixed-race neighbourhoods), and the evocation of a Greek mythological legend.  Each of these layers of Black Orpheus adds further richness to what is ultimately a spectacle of sensuality and passion. And it is for this reason that Black Orpheus seems to be relatively beyond routine comparison with other films.  

The film was directed and co-scripted (with Jacques Viot) by Frenchman Marcel Camus, but it was shot in Brazil with an almost exclusively Brazilian cast of nonprofessional actors and released in Brazilian Portuguese.  It was based on Vinicius de Moraes’s Brazilian stage play Orfeu da Conceição (1956), which, itself, was a modernization of the ancient Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.

In that legend, Orpheus, the son of the god Apollo and an irresistible lyre player, falls madly in love with and marries the beautiful nymph Eurydice.  However, shortly after their marriage, Eurydice is bitten by a poisonous snake (an incarnated symbol of death) and dies.  Orpheus is inconsolable and decides to try and descend to Hades, the underworld, to see his beloved.  With his magical lyre-playing, Orpheus secures permission from the gods to escort Eurydice back to the world of the living, but with one condition: while walking out from the dark underworld, Eurydice must follow behind Orpheus, and he must not look at her before they come out into the light.  In the event, however, Orpheus cannot resist the temptation to turn and look at her, and he loses her forever.

In this modernization of that Greek legend, the setting is Rio de Janeiro during their famous Carnaval festival, which is held just before the Lent period prior to Easter and which features massive displays of singing and dancing.  The Brazilian Carnaval very much forms the colorful backdrop to this story, and the film’s excellent production values reflect and reinforce the festive  mood summoned by this festival.  In particular, both the cinematography by Jean Bourgoin and the film editing by Andrée Feix are very effective in this regard.  But even more special attention should be directed to the music by Luiz Bonfá and Antônio Carlos Jobim.  I especially liked two songs composed by Luiz Bonfá,  "Manhã de Carnaval" [1] and  "Samba de Orfeu", that were so good that their presence could even have been accentuated in the film.  They still ring in my memory.

The story of Black Orpheus has three main sections to it.

1.  Orpheus and Eurydice meet
In the beginning of the film, Eurydice (played by Marpessa Dawn) arrives in Rio de Janeiro looking for the home of her cousin Serafina (Léa Garcia).  She takes the trolley north to the end of the line, where the tram driver Orfeu (“Orpheus”, Breno Mello) notices his tram’s lone occupant and introduces her to station master Hermes (Alexandro Constantino), who gives her directions to Serafina’s home area up in a favela in the surrounding hills.  

After she departs, Orfeu is then shown with his possessive fiancé, Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira).  Mira is glamorous but very jealous about any women with whom Orfeu associates, especially since Orfeu can be clearly seen to be something of a playboy.  Then Orfeu goes back alone to his own hut that is in the same favela and next door to where Serafina happens to live.  There he is greeted by two neighbour boys, Benedito (Jorge Dos Santos) and Zeca (Aurino Cassiano), who love Orfeu’s guitar playing and who believe Orfeu's story that his entrancing                 guitar music makes the sun rise every morning.  Orfeu then plays and sings for them the beautiful song “Manhã de Carnaval”.

Meanwhile Eurydice has found Serafina’s hut and has been explaining to why she has come to Rio.  It is not for the Carnaval, but to escape and hide from a mysterious stalker who she thinks is trying to kill her.  Afterwards, both Eurydice and Orfeu are delighted to discover that they are next door neighbors.

2.  Carnaval Dancing 
It turns out that Orfeu, Mira, and Serafina are all skilled samba dancers and will have prominent roles in the Carnaval street dancing coming up.  Eurydice is a good dancer, too.  At a rehearsal coordinated by Orfeu, the many participants all dance madly to the rhythmic music, and this is beautifully shown by the coordinated cinematography of so many dancing feet, including one breathtaking shot lasting 50 seconds.  However, during these festivities Eurydice’s silent pursuer, dressed in a skeleton costume, shows up and threatens Eurydice.  Orfeu comes and chases away this stranger (Adhemar da Silva), whom we shall call “Death”, and Orfeu protectively allows her to stay at his place for the night.  In the process, Orfeu and Eurydice fall in love.

Later at the Carnaval festivities, Serafina gives her own dance costume and mask to Eurydice so that the girl can dance with Orfeu without Mira knowing.  But Mira manages to discover this chicanery and rips off Eurydice’s mask and attacks her.  Eurydice runs away both from the uncontrollably vengeful Mira and also Death, who had been looking for her.  Eventually Eurydice, hoping to find refuge with Hermes, makes it to the now dark and deserted end-of-the-line tram station, with Death in hot pursuit.  Orfeu has been following the two of them, and when he shows up, he tries to find the hiding Eurydice by going to the switchboard and throwing on the master power switch.  But Eurydice has been holding onto a live wire, and she is instantly electrocuted.  Death then confronts Orfeu and tells him, "she's mine now," before knocking him out cold.

3.  Looking for Eurydice 
When Orfeu comes to, he is informed that Eurydice is dead, but he can’t accept it.  He rushes off to the hospital and then to the Bureau of Missing Persons, but to  no avail.  A sympathetic janitor at the latter office takes Orfeu to his Macumba cult religion ritual, where a symbolic, song-filled rite is conducted.  During the ritual, Orfeu is urged to sing out, and when he does so, he hears from behind him Eurydice’s voice clearly calling to him.  She warns him not to turn around or he will lose her forever.  But unable to suppress his desire to see his beloved, Orfeu turns anyway and looks to see the voice calling him is coming from an old woman sitting behind him.  Eurydice is gone.

Still grieving, Orfeu goes to the city morgue and retrieves Eurydice's body, which he carries away in his arms back toward his home in the cliff-lined hills.  When he nears his home, he sees that it has been set on fire, and an enraged Mira is running toward him.  A rock she throws at him strikes him in the head and knocks him over the cliff to his death.  Although Mira was Orfeu’s legitimate fiancé, by this point she had become the film’s symbol of vengeance and oppression.

In the final scene the next morning, Benedito retrieves Orfeu’s guitar and urges Zeca to play it like Orfeu in order to make the sun rise.  Zeca plays, and the sun rises as the children dance around joyfully.

These closing images reinforce the theme that reverberates all through the film – that the ephemeral raptures of love and life are best experienced by immersing ourselves in the songs and dances that embody those joys. These songs and dances give us the opportunity to rapturously express ourselves in ways that words can never accommodate.  This is what the revelrous dancing of Carnaval is intended to evoke.  So the delirious dancing sequences shown in Black Orpheus are not only bewitching; they are also an intrinsic part of its story in visual and musical form.  

However, despite the many thematic dimensions of Black Orpheus, there have been some critics who have wanted the film to take on additional, more socially oriented, aspects.  These have included 
  • The nature and ongoing causes of poverty of favelas in Rio de Janeiro
  • The extent of racial discrimination in Rio de Janeiro and in Brazil overall
  • The lasting effects of European colonization and exploitation on Brazilian life
  • The degree to which there is exact adherence to the original Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (concerning which there are in fact several different versions [2]).
The more vehement of the film’s naysayers went further and complained about the film’s “simplified and sanitized portrayal of happy-go-lucky dark-skinned people just dancing and making merry, oblivious to the systemic corruption and injustice that keeps them living in squalid run-down shacks” [3].  But I don’t go along with such judgements.

While all of the above issues may be of interest in the appropriate context, it is not necessary that every film that is set in a Rio favela or touches on a Greek myth must specifically address those issues.  Black Orpheus can stand on its own merits.  And in my view, those merits are clearly evident for all to see.  Moreover, the overwhelming majority of critics and viewers over the years have felt the same way (e.g. [4,5,6,7,8 ]).  More formally and industry-wide, Black Orpheus was awarded the Palme d'Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, the 1960 U. S. Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Foreign Language Film, and the 1960 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film.

So I recommend you just enjoy the film’s samba-driven narrative that is driven by the vivid rhythmic theatrics of its four iconic figures – Orfeu, Eurydice, Mira, and Death.

  1. “Manhã de Carnaval”, Wikipedia, (14 July 2021).   
  2. “Orpheus and Eurydice”, Wikipedia, (30 July 2021).   
  3. David Blakeslee, “Black Orpheus (1959) - #48", Criterion Reflections, (10 May 2011).   
  4. Bosley Crowther, “Screen: Legend Retold; 'Black Orpheus' Bows at the Plaza”, The New York Times, (22 December 1959). 
  5. David Ehrenstein, “Black Orpheus”, “The Criterion Collection”, (7 June 1999).   
  6. James Bowman, “The Great Illusion of Carnaval”, The New York Sun, (24 February 2006).   
  7. Michael Atkinson, “Black Orpheus: Dancing in the Streets”, The Criterion Collection, (18 August 2010).   
  8. Glenn Heath Jr., “DVD Review: Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus on the Criterion Collection”, Slant Magazine, (18 August 2010).  

Marcel Camus

 Films of Marcel Camus:

“Eat Drink Man Woman” - Ang Lee (1994)

Taiwan-born Ang Lee (pinyin: Li An) has been a highly successful film director whose versatility over the years has been demonstrated with productions undertaken across several different continents and with themes spanning multiple different genres and social contexts – for example: The Wedding Banquet (1993), Sense and Sensibility (1997), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Lust, Caution (2007), and Life of Pi (2012).  But I think Lee’s greatest film was one of his earliest, Eat Drink Man Woman (1994).  This is a compelling work that, despite its Taiwanese/Chinese cultural context, is concerned generally with how romantic concerns can interact with family values, and so it can be appreciated by just about everyone [1,2,3,4,5,6].  

The film’s story about a master chef in Taipei and his three grownup daughters was scripted by Ang Lee, James Schamus, and Hui-Ling Wang.  And the film’s overall production values, including the acting, were excellent, but extra special praise should be singled out for the cinematography by Jong Lin and the film editing by Ang Lee and Tim Squyres.  In some respects it is the cinematography and film editing that help elevate this film to a truly high status.

The film opens with a detailed presentation of Lao (“Old”, an honorific in Chinese) Chu preparing an elaborate dinner for his three grownup daughters.  The daughters are unmarried and so live at Chu’s home, but they are often out attending to their own personal affairs.  However, Lao Chu expects, indeed demands, that they all unfailingly attend the Sunday dinner that he prepares for them every week, as a ritual and as a precious instrument for family bonding.  Chu has been a widower for the past sixteen years and has largely raised his three daughters during that time on his own.  And like many parents, he is concerned that his daughters, who are all exposed to modernist influences of contemporary Taiwanese society, will start drifting away.  So for Chu, the weekly Sunday dinner is crucial; but for the three daughters, the dinner is boring and almost a form of torture.

For the rest of the film, the viewer is treated to four parallel and interlaced narratives that trace the mostly separate and interpersonal concerns of Chu and his three daughters.  We soon discover  the following basic information about them.
  • Lao Chu (played by Sihung Lung) is an aging but famous chef in Taipai and is the master chef at a huge and important hotel in Taipei.  In fact it is widely said that Chu is Taipei’s finest chef, and he is generally used to being in command of those around him.  However Chu is now losing what is critical for a chef, his sense of taste.  So he has to rely on his old friend and fellow master chef Lao Wen (Jui Wang) to sample all his food concoctions to make sure they have been seasoned properly.
  • Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang), Lao Chu’s oldest daughter, is about 29-years old and works as a high school chemistry teacher.  She is sensitive and reserved and, compared to the other sisters, an upholder of traditional values.  In addition, she has recently become a devout conservative Christian.  Jia-Jen has a close woman friend, Liang Jin-Rong (Sylvia Chang), who was a former school classmate and with whom she often gets together to share concerns, such as Jin-Rong’s drawn-out divorce process.  Jia-Jen’s other friends, worried that she is getting old to find a marriage partner, try to help her in this area, but Jia-Jen shows no interest in dating anybody.  She still hasn’t gotten over a failed love interest when she was in college nine years ago.
  • Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu) is the second-oldest daughter and quite different from Jia-Jen.  Unlike her attractive but quiet and modestly dressing older sister, Jia-Chen is glamorous and outgoing.  She is an energetic, rising executive for an airline company, and she is accustomed to expressing her opinions when she feels like it.  She is also the least tolerant of their father’s Sunday dinners and intends to move out of the home as soon as the new apartment she has purchased is ready.  On the romantic front, she is confidant and bold, e.g. she has a purely sexual relationship with a male friend, Raymond (Chit-Man Chan),  that involves no commitments from either party.  She treasures her independence.
  • Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), the youngest sister, is 20-years-old and works at a Wendy’s fast-food restaurant while attending college classes.  She is generally upbeat and usually deferent to her more opinionated older sisters.
So all four members of the Chu family, though different, are relatively well-balanced; and in accordance with family traditions, they are expected to share with each other what is happening in their respective lines when they get together on Sunday for dinner.  But over the course of this film, we see that all four develop romantic relationships concerning which they feel guarded about sharing with each other on Sundays.  And the presented subtlety of those guarded feelings is part of what makes this a great film.  

In this connection there is an early scene in which a Chu family Sunday dinner is interrupted by an emergency at Lao Chu’s posh hotel.  We learn that a big feast for an important gathering at the hotel is in preparation but due to some cooking hitches is evidently headed for disaster.  Lao Chu is summoned to rescue this desperate situation, and in a highly professional way he does indeed save the day – and, in the process, demonstrate his impressive culinary prowess.  Afterwards, Lao Chu and Lao Wen become somewhat inebriated and reflect on what they have learned over the courses of their long lives.  In a reflective moment of gloom, Lao Chu asks his friend,
“Eat drink man woman.  Food sex . . . Is that all there is?”
The rest of the film offers an answer to that question.

As the interlaced narratives of the four Chu family members unfold, the viewer learns about the evolving romantic relationships that develop for them. 
  • Jia-Jen is not looking to date anyone, but she has an accidental encounter with her school’s new volleyball coach, Ming-Dao (Chin-Cheng Lu), and further encounters stir an interest on Ming-Dao’s part,  Ming-Dao is naturally outgoing, and his interest shown is gradually reciprocated by the shy Jia-Jen.
  • Jia-Chien finds herself attracted to Li Kai (Winston Chao) a handsome and suave new manager at her airline company.  It looks like they are certain to become lovers, but at the last minute she learns that Li Kai was the man who broke Jia-Jen’s heart nine years ago.  So Jia-Chen has to call things off with Li Kai.  About this time Jia-Chen also learns that Raymond has chosen to break off his relationship with Jia-Chen and get married to another woman.  So now for the time being at least, Jia-Chen is bereft of lovers and “alone”.
  • Jia-Ning’s close friend and coworker at Wendy’s, Rachel (Yu Chen), appears to be in the process of dumping her heartbroken boyfriend Guo Lun (Chao-jung Chen), and knowing that Guo Lun will always be waiting for her outside of Wendy’s after work, she asks Jia-Ning to shoo the lovesick boy away.  But Jia-Ning’s sympathetic encounters with Guo Lun soon lead to a mutual attraction between the two.  It turns out later that Rachel was only toying with her boyfriend and didn’t want to lose him, but her turnaround is too late.
  • Lao Chu does not appear to be looking for any romantic liaisons, but his three daughters worry that he must do so or he will wind up lonely once the daughters eventually all leave home and attend to their private lives.  Lao Chu’s isolation is only worsened when his longtime friend and confidante, Lao Wen, suddenly dies of a heart attack.  But when the daughters learn that their friend Liang Jin-Rong’s widowed mother, Madame Liang (Ah-Lei Gua), has just returned to Taipei from overseas and is now sometimes socializing with Lao Chu, they optimistically assume that, even though the woman appears to be pushy and overbearing, she would be a suitable marriage partner for their father.  However, Lao Chu devotes most of his attention to affectionately spoiling Liang Jin-Rong’s young six-year-old daughter, Shan-Shan (Yu-Chien Tang), by secretly making the girl tasty lunches to take to school every day.  For Shan-Shan, Lao Chu is like a substitute daddy.
Finally, mostly at Sunday dinner confessions, the viewer learns how these relationships have turned out.  Jia-Ning announces that she is leaving home to marry her secret lover, Guo Lun, by whom she is already pregnant.  Jia-Jen marries Ming-Dao and even gets him to convert to Christianity.  

But most shocking of all is what happens with Lao Chu.  At a family dinner to which the Liang family (Madame Liang, Liang Jin-Rong, and Shan-Shan) have been invited, Lao Chu makes a marriage proposal not to the one everyone expects – Madame Liang, but to Jin-Rong, with whom Lao Chu has been having a secret affair.  This explains why Lao Chu has been showering Shan-Shan with paternal affection for awhile.  And it also means that the daughters will not be abandoning their father to loneliness.

So romantic love appears to have conquered all, and, in particular, to have overshadowed traditional family mores.  Is that the film’s final message?  Not entirely [6].  Jia-Chen, the most glamorous and attractive of the three sisters, was always the one who was least affected by traditional values.  She always found her father and his Sunday dinners insufferable, and she was the first daughter to announce her plans to move out of the family home.  But by the end of the film, she has changed.  She abandons her affair with Li Kai out of concerns for her older sister’s feelings.  And she declines a promotion from her airline company to be an overseas vice president, because she wants to stay closer to her family.  In the final scene she is shown cooking a meal for her father at the old home and showing hitherto unseen warmth for him.  So traditional family values now apparently have meaning for her.
Consequently we can say that what we have here is not just a battle between Modernism and Tradition or between East and West.  Overall, what makes this a great film is the display of subtle and complex interacting feelings presented by the main character actors.  My favorite performance was that of Kuei-Mei Yang as Jia-Jen, but they are all compelling, and you may have another favorite.

Also outstanding is the cinematography.  There are many emotive closeups that help convey the feelings in this story.  I would also like to call your attention to three extended tracking shots that I thought were very effective.  One is a two-minute shot showing an early conversation between Jia-Ning and Guo Lun.  A second is s 90-second shot of a conversation between Jia-Jen and Liang Jin Rong.  And a third sequence that lingers in my memory is a two-minute shot of Jia-Jen and Li Kai conversing while walking through a store.

So getting back to Lao Chu’s question that he asked early on in the film,
“Eat drink man woman.  Food sex . . . Is that all there is?”
We can say that the film’s response is,
“No, there is much more.  And it all comes from love in all its various guises and modes.”  
Love can be manifest in both traditional and modern circumstances.  The key thing is that, no  matter what the situation, love represents the most sincere and authentic aspects of who we are.  And this is what Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman puts on display for us.

  1. Hal Hinson, "‘Eat Drink Man Woman’", Washington Post (19 August 1994).   
  2. Desson Howe, "‘Eat Drink Man Woman’", Washington Post, (19 October 1994).   
  3. Marjorie Baumgarten, “Eat Drink Man Woman”, Austin Chronicle, (19 August 1994).  
  4. Janet Maslin, “FILM REVIEW; Avoiding Basic Human Desires, or Trying To”, “The New York Times”, (3 August 1994).   
  5. Norman N. Holland, “Ang Lee, ‘Eat Drink Man Woman’ (1994)”, A Sharper Focus, (n.d.).   
  6. David Sorfa, “Eat Drink Man Woman: Summary & Analysis”, Jotted Lines, (23 February 2020).