“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).  

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