Friday, October 14, 2011

Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus) (1959)
BRAZIL --- fantasy

Dir: Marcel Camus

This fine entry of a fantasy film comes from the country responsible for Cidade de Deus (City of God) and the old Coffin Joe horror films; you guessed it Brazil. Except this is quite some time before the drug wars and such. In what is quite possibly the oldest of all tragically beautiful love stories, "Orfeu Negro" weaves a tale of music and the power of love. In the Greek myth Orpheus was the son of muse Calliope who married a woman named Eurydice. His wife was being taunted by a satyr one day and fell into a vipers nest. When Orpheus found her, he played music for her that made the gods weep on end. Eventually they advised him to travel to the underworld where he played the music for Hades. being overwhelmed by his music, they allowed him to return to earth with his wife, under the condition she was to follow behind him and that he may not look back until they arrived. However, when they do reach the upperworld, he hurriedly looks back, but she had not stepped foot yet and she is lost forever.

"Orfeu Negro" transplants this classic love story from ancient Greece to contemporary Rio de Janiero. Orfeu (Breno Mello) is a trolley conductor, who has a gift for playing the guitar. He's due to marry his beautiful, yet (for lack of a better word) bitchy fiancee Mira. However, he comes across Euridice (Marpessa Dawn) who rides to the last stop on the trolley in search for her cousin. She is directed by another conductor, appropriately named Hermes, to her destination. Meanwhile, Orfeu and Mira go to get the official paperwork for their marriage license. Orfeu even gets somewhat of a premonition of things to come, when the clerk asks Mira if her name is Euridice, like the old, old tale of tragic romance, he says. He admits to just joking to Mira, and she's so consumed with herself, the upcoming marriage, and Carnaval, she blows it off, but keeps an eye on him from then on out.

Euridice arrives atop the hillside of town to meet up with her cousin Serafina, who has just spent her savings on a costume for Carnaval. They discuss what she's doing there, when Euridice confides she ran away from home from fear of a man who is attempting to kill her; death. Serafina says she is perfectly safe now. When Orfeu gets his guitar out of the pawn shop, he escapes the arm of his fiancee and begins to play with the local children who believe he can wake up the sun with his music. During his child-like time with them and teaching one of them how to play guitar, unbeknownst to him he's serenading Euridice who is listening on from the neighboring shack belonging to Serafina. When he ducks out to hide from Mira's girlfriends, Orfeu's plans quickly change when he discovers the pretty new visitor is named Euridice, his destined lover.

He spends most of the film protecting her from death (the satyr), a man who appears clad in an abstract skull mask and black costume. However, fate finds them out, as the tale begins to weave out exactly as the ancient legend did. She eventually tries to escape the man and ultimately falls victim to him under her own circumstance. Orpheus loses her, but is given one final chance during a religious ceremony.

"Orfeu Negro" is a classic and beautiful love story, the best of which usually don't always end in happily ever after. The film uniquely pays careful attention to the homages to the greek legend with familiar characters such as the Satyr, Hermes, Cerebus, and Charon the ferryman of the river Styx. Like most films made in the 50's it features the ubiquitous musical sequence. The cinematography is vibrant and colorful. Even the scenes of Euridice's death is bathed in red light. In fact one of my favorite images in the film is  with Orfeu and the janitor decending a long spiral staircase, in which the bottom is again bathed in bright red light. Many film critics loved "Orfeu Negro", but deemed it a French film made in Brazil. Fair enough. However, I'm certain 3/4 of the product including the mostly Afro-Latin cast, the boss nova bumping soundtrack from Antônio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Floriano Bonfá, and local film crew contributed to its success. I can't see much French influence, especially new wave, on this film. Though I'm sure if made on the nickels and dimes of Brazilian money it wouldn't look and feel nearly as polished as it is. According to Barack Obama, via his book "Dreams of My Father", he wasn't so impressed with the film either.