Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus, though somewhat dated and usurped by time, still offers the sensual delights of Carnaval, toe-tapping samba, heart-pounding batucada and a colourful visual tapestry of Brazil that has yet to be assailed in his retelling of the classical myth.
Set over three days leading up to and including the Rio de Janeiro carnival the film follows tram driver, ladies man and all-round bacchanal Orfeu (Breno Mello), trapped into marriage with the wild Mira (Lourdes de Oliviera), as the beautiful Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) enters his life and his heart. Eurydice is on the run from her guardian, whom she is convinced wants to kill her. Orfeu’s love takes him from the city’s favelas, through the streets of carnival celebrants and into the darkest of underworlds in his quest to save Eurydice, their fates entwined like the vines and thorns of the darkest rose.
To modern eyes, agaze to the wonders of the world via television and the increased accessibility of world travel, Black Orpheus may seem at times quaint and almost ridiculously innocent, but to its contemporary audience the sights and sounds of Brazil’s most famous celebration was a revelation. The film introduced the world to the latin beats of the Bossa Nova and the banging rhythms of the batucada drum troops; revealed a world of colour, dance and romance to a West still recovering from post-war austerity; and, though its pre-civil rights portrayal of people of colour borders on the childlike, there is a freedom in the love and love of life that was revelatory to a public unused to seeing anything other than middle class dramas and horse operas.
Apart from one diversion into the metaphysical, Black Orpheus never travels into fantasy, the whole myth is told through Rio’s hyper-real colour and joy: Orfeu becomes the father of songs, able to make the Sun rise with just his battered guitar and silky voice; a walk down a spiralling stairway becomes a journey into Hades; the women who squabble and lust after Orfeu, the Maenads who hold his fate in their hands.
It’s a beautiful, colourful film which, if you can put behind you its problematic portrayals of innocent black people, will carry you on its rhythms and beats and wrap you in warm sun and hectic night. Pure joy.