Black Orpheus (1959, Marcel Camus)

There’s a lot to love about Black Orpheus. Director and co-writer Camus does a bunch of great stuff, just not when it comes to how he and Jacques Vito adapt the legend part. Orpheus is about, you know, Orpheus (Breno Mello), who is now a Brazilian trolley car driver slash musician slash dancer, and Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), who is now a… young woman who comes to Rio trying to avoid a stalker (Adhemar da Silva). They meet and Mello is immediately infatuated, which is complicated by his impending nuptials to Lourdes de Oliveira. For her part, Dawn doesn’t fall for Mello until she hears him singing.

Now, Camus and Vito go rather on the nose with the adaptation—de Oliveira and Mello hear about the legend from the marriage license clerk. Apparently Mello has never heard of it before, which seems… if not impossible, at least improbable. If Dawn knows about the legend or hears about it during the film’s present action, it happens off screen.

But it’s not clear how much this matter-of-fact handling of the source plot is going to affect the film until the finale, when it turns out Camus and Vito don’t have anything up their narrative sleeve. Mello’s trip to the underworld—updated to late 1950s Brazil—is perfunctory. Narratively, Camus and Vito have spent most of the film building the subplots; even though Dawn knows she’s on the run from this stalker and in danger, she doesn’t get to be the protagonist when it’s important. She does for the chase scenes (one of them), but Camus and Vito’s narrative distance doesn’t really allow for traditional protagonists. Mello, for example, is a constant mystery. First, you wonder how he’s got it worked out in his head de Oliveira is going to be okay with him throwing her over for literal stranger Dawn on the day they get their marriage license. It’s also a little weird Dawn’s cousin, Léa Garcia, is so supportive of Mello’s conquest—though, some of it might just be every woman in Black Orpheus secretly hates every other woman in Black Orpheus, at least if they’re not related. The parts are fifty percent good, fifty percent iffy.

Visually, most of the film is about movement. It’s Carnaval. It’s time to sing and dance and there’s a lot of it going on. Camus and editor Andrée Felix do a fine job editing together these sequences, which are often focused on the dancers’ expressions (and how they convey the experience) rather than their footwork. But there’s some very impressive footwork. Mello’s great.

And the third act loses that movement. Sure, Camus still focuses on some movement, but they’re smaller scale movements. For example, when Mello’s at a de facto seance, Camus showcases someone who’s got the spirit and is speaking tongues. Is their movement important to the scene overall? Not really, but it gets even worse when it turns out it’s all a foreshadowing MacGuffin.

Of course, the third act loses a lot more. Camus and Vito drop supporting cast, but they also turn the cast they’ve got into avatars at best and caricatures at worst. They all become functional, losing their personality. It’s worst with kids Jorge Dos Santos and Aurino Cassiano. They’re omnipresent in most of the film; they think Mello’s awesome and follow him around, trying to get him to play guitar for them; they think Dawn’s amazing and follow her around, trying to help with her burgeoning romance with Mello. But then they lose most of their agency in the final third, inexplicably separated on the way to Carnaval just to provide for a reuniting moment at Carnaval. It ought to be foreshadowing things might not go well for the wrap-up, something further confirmed when it turns out the value the characters place on human life is… shockingly low. That and manslaughter. And guilt.

The best acting is from Garcia, de Oliveira, and the kids. Mello and Dawn are both likable but their performances aren’t particularly deep. They’re never able to convincingly convey their characters apparent desires, though everyone around them is fine doing so. Maybe it’s how they’re written.

Great photography from Jean Bourgoin, great music from Luiz Bonfá and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Feix’s editing is uneven but only because there are constantly shots where the cast is clearly looking at someone for direction. Not clear if Feix just didn’t cut right or if he didn’t have an alternative.

As far as the surface goes—setting Orpheus in modern-day Brazil during Carnaval—Black Orpheus does fine. But it definitely doesn’t fully utilize its available resources.

And the big dramatic finish seems way too rushed in how Camus shoots it.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Marcel Camus; screenplay by Camus and Jacques Viot, based on a play by Vinicius de Moraes; director of photography, Jean Bourgoin; edited by Andrée Feix; music by Luiz Bonfá and Antonio Carlos Jobim; production designer, Pierre Guffroy; produced by Sacha Gordine; released by Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France.

Starring Breno Mello (Orfeo), Marpessa Dawn (Eurydice), Lourdes de Oliveira (Mira), Léa Garcia (Serafina), Waldemar De Souza (Chico), Alexandro Constantino (Hermes), Jorge Dos Santos (Benedito), Aurino Cassiano (Zeca), and Ademar Da Silva (Death).


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