Following the List is a travel experience both in time and space and I love that I get to visit a lot of places around the world on this tour, especially when the movies are up to standard. That is certainly the case with “Orfeu Negro” or “Black Orpheus” from Brazil. I like Brazil very much. I have been there twice and got the impression that it is a happy and friendly place despite the problems and poverty they do have to struggle with, so to watch a movie centered on the most quintessential Brazilian event of the Carnaval is something to enjoy.
“Orfeu Negro” is one of those movies where I am happy with much of the movie yet contain elements, even key elements, that annoy me, so this will be a “great, but…” review.
Mostly however this movie is a joy to behold. The quality of the filming is exquisite with bright colors, beautiful vistas and very strong and well placed cutting. Even by Hollywood standard this one gets top marks and that is not exactly what I would expect from the second Brazilian movie on the List, no offense.
Secondly, and that is the winning point, this is very much a story about Carnaval, the all-consuming event of the year in Rio de Janeiro, where the town explodes in music and dance and joie de vivre. There is so much samba music and dancing here that I cannot help being caught by it, even when it gets more ominous and trance-like. This is not the feeling I get watching a musical. Gene Kelly never makes me feel like getting out of my chair to join the party, but the samba in “Orfeu Negro” makes my blood pump and my feet tap. Then, talking breaks from the dancing, when the movie changes gear, we are treated with wonderful bossa nova. Oh, that beautiful sleek language caressing the song in bossa nova. In my personal version of paradise the soundtrack is bossa nova, oh yes. Here is the cool thing: all this music and dancing is not just a pretty backdrop, but so very central to the movie that in my opinion it is the movie.
For some strange reason though Camus, or whoever was in charge of the project, decided that the movie should be a modern, but very literal retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. I do not mind that story, it is a beautiful one indeed, but it is so unnecessary here. Naming the characters Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes and even the dog Cerberus is ham fisted and the mystical stalker dressed up as Death seems entirely artificial. He is only there and in that form because in the myth Death takes Eurydice. I would not have minded if this had been the man that threatened Eurydice in the village she escaped from (though it may be what was intended) in a more naturalistic form, but here is seem to be a magical creature, yet he is obviously just some dude with a mask on. There is no real need for this character. Orfeu’s (Brenno Mello) spurned girlfriend Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira) has vitriol and anger enough to fill that role and something similar goes for the spirit summoning late in the movie. In my opinion the movie would have worked better by cutting the connection to the myth and stick to the triangle drama and the Carnaval.
That irritation however does not ruin the overall joy of watching “Orfeu Negro”. It is brimful of colorful characters such as Serafina (Léa Garcia) and her demure cousin Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), Mira of course, Orfeu himself and the children that follow him as a Greek choir and when these people gather as a crowd in the samba magic happens. It is obvious that these are people of little means and that they live in awful favelas, this is not a white washing of Brazil, but that makes the energy released through that annual event so much more powerful. This is not spillover from a life of plenty, but the energetic outlet of a life in poverty, the thing that makes life possible for these people.
Brazil is a very interesting place also outside of Carnaval. It is big and complex and varied and I think that is captured very well in “Orfeu Negro”. Even if this is only Rio we see the contrast of the boulevards and the favelas, the blacks and the whites and everything in between and most of all we see people with lust for life. Thank you for that.
Final detail: “Orfeu Negro” was made both in English and Portuguese. I understand the motivation, but honestly, why anybody would want this in anything but sensuous, Brazilian Portuguese is beyond me.