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.