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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.
David Ehrenstein has been writing film criticism for thirty years for publications including Film Comment, the Los Angeles Times, Cahiers du Cinéma, and Film Quarterly.