Criterion Sunday 48: Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus, 1959)

Black Orpheus occupies an odd little space in the corner of film culture. Primarily a French film, albeit one filmed and set in Rio de Janeiro, it came out in the first flush of excitement around the French nouvelle vague, and went on to win the Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival (admittedly the Cannes organisers weren’t particularly enamoured about the new young voices threatening to up-end their nation’s cinematic traditions). It’s essentially a one-hit wonder (neither its director nor its stars ever went on to create any other films which are particularly remembered), and gained great success as a colourful piece of exotica enlivening the dour European cinema landscape of the era, and this is probably how it should be contextualised now. It’s certainly not a particularly progressive film, and though it focuses on black characters — itself something worth celebrating — they are portrayed with a somewhat colonialising attitude as simple, brightly-attired and constantly dancing with a joie de vivre in the face of (aestheticised) poverty. That said, it’s also undeniably an enjoyable film for exactly these reasons, reworking the Greek myths with its story of Orfeu (Breno Mello) who is engaged to be married but falls in love with the exotic Eurídice (Marpessa Dawn, herself an American by way of France). Things all get pointedly mythic towards the end, but in the meantime there’s plenty of scenes of their pretty little hilltop favelas, not to mention sequences set at Rio’s carnival. If it’s an odd little dead end of cinema history, it’s at least a rhythmic one.

Criterion Extras: There are short French interviews from the period with director Marcel Camus and, a few years later, star Marpessa Dawn, rare chances to hear them in their own words. There are also featurettes narrated by experts about the history of bossanova music, and the way the film is situated within Brazilian society (it’s not considered particularly reflective, unsurprisingly enough).

More substantial is the feature-length documentary made for French television, À la recherche d’Orfeu Negro (Looking for Black Orpheus, 2005, dir. René Letzgus/Bernard Tournois). It starts out seeming as if it’s going to be a fairly straightforward talking heads number, featuring interviews with surviving cast and crew members, including star Breno Mello. However it soon widens out into more of a look at the film in the context of Brazilian music and musical celebration, settling into a laidback series of song recitations recalling the film and atmospheric shots of Rio preparing for the carnival. Some of the film’s attitudes are critiqued, but mostly there’s a warmth on display, as a number of the original settings are revisited. Without being overly didactic, it’s an interesting companion piece to the movie.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marcel Camus | Writers Marcel Camus, Vinicius de Moraes and Jacques Viot | Cinematographer Jean Bourgoin | Starring Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn | Length 107 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 9 August 2015

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