“Thousands of years ago, Orpheus was sad and melancholic, like this little bird trapped in its cage. But one day, from the strings of his guitar that sought only one true love, a voice spoke to him of lost kisses from the lips of Eurydice.”
“Black Orpheus” (1959) is easy to recommend, for there are so many aspects that make it such an irresistible watch. It uses the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice as its foundation. For those who need to brush up on their Greek mythology, Orpheus was known for his poetry and music and his ability to charm all living things with it. On his wedding day to Eurydice, she falls into a nest of venomous snakes and is fatally bitten on her heel. Distraught, Orpheus travels to the underworld and convinces Hades and Persephone to allow Eurydice to return back to earth and to the living on the condition that he walks in front of her and cannot turn back to look at her until they’re both back in the upper world. Of course, Orpheus cannot abide, turns around and Eurydice’s soul vanishes for a second time, but this time it is forever.
In 1956, Brazilian Vinicius de Moraes wrote a stage play, “Orfeu da Conceição” (“Orpheus of the Conception”) which reworked the legend and set it in a contemporary favela in Rio de Janeiro. It had music by Antonio Carlos Jobim. These two collaborators were part of the birth of the influential bossa nova genre of music which was a style of samba that had an innovative syncopation and developed in the late 50s. French director Marcel Camus helmed the screen adaptation, now renamed “Black Orpheus.” It went on to win the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, and was honored with the 1960 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. It also introduced bossa nova in the United States. Jobim went on to collaborate with American jazz saxophonist Stan Getz, and Brazilian singer Joao Gilbetro and his wife Astrud Gilberto on the album “Getz/Gilberto” in 1963, which created a bossa nova craze and is one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. How fitting that, in a movie about Orpheus, who uses music as a way to bewitch, it was Jobin and Moraes who wrote and created the songs. One of them, “Manhã de Carnaval” (“Carnival Morning”) written by Luis Bonfa, another Brazilian composer, became one of the first bossa nova compositions to gain notoriety outside Brazil. It is sung by Orpheus in the film, and is now a jazz standard known as “A Day in the Life of a Fool” which has been recorded by many artists including Frank Sinatra. It is the samba sound that is a constant throughout the film, identifiable by the distinctive sound of the cuica, a friction drum with a large pitch range which is associated with that style of music.
The story unfolds during Rio’s Carnival. Eurydice is fleeing the countryside and has just arrived in the city. She’s running away from a man who wants to kill her, and she plans to take refuge with her cousin Serafina who lives in the Morro da Babilônia, a hill overlooking the city that separates the Copacana beach from Botafogo. On her way, she rides a streetcar being driven by Orpheus, who knows Serafina well. He has a reputation with the ladies, but is now getting engaged to Mira, a pushy and abrasive beauty.
“No one can resist the madness,” says Hermes, Orpheus’ boss, about the Carnival. As the festivities and the preparations take over the town, Eurydice and Orpheus fall in love with one another. The man, in a costume of death, appears and threatens to take Eurydice away in time. Mira is possessive of her fiancé and starts to understand that Eurydice is threatening her happiness. They all hurl themselves unto the festival, its masquerade, floats, samba schools and confetti.
There’s a dreamlike quality to the proceedings. The depiction of the favela — with its deep rooted African traditions mixed in with old Europe — grounds it. Director Camus uses symbolism throughout, like an early sight of young children flying a kite of the sun, and watching it flail in the sky as it falls down the precipice. Or, when we see Orpheus go to the pawn shop to retrieve his guitar, notice the umbrellas around it creating a jail-like motif.
The first half of the film is bathed in sunlight and bright colors. The views from up above the hill looking down at the ocean and Rio itself are spectacular, intentionally making you feel as if the characters are floating up on clouds. As the story progresses, nighttime falls and the lighting and the narrative become more expressive. There’s a dramatic usage of the hospital where Orpheus must go to find Eurydice and he has a poignant exchange with a janitor on the top floor where the Missing Persons Department is found. “There is such a department, but I never saw any missing persons there, just mountains of paper,” the janitor tells Orpheus. It is this man who takes Orpheus down a symbolically dramatic spiral staircase where they witness a ‘macumba’ ritual, in which the spirit of Eurydice is summoned.
I encourage you to see this classic for yourself.
Orpheus : “You’re in my arms, Eurydice. I’ll protect you always, from everything. I care for you, Eurydice. You’ll never be frightened again.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, Kanopy, TCM and The Criterion Channel. Available to rent on Vudu, Apple TV+, iTunes, Amazon and Alamo on Demand.
Written by Marcel Camus and Jacques Viot
Based on the play by Vinicius de Moraes
Directed by Marcel Camus
Starring Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn, Lourdes de Oliveira and Léa Garcia
Bringing “Black Orpheus” to the Screen
The classical Greek myth had been adapted countless times, but it was a Brazilian version that captured the interest of French filmmaker Marcel Camus. Brazilian poet, lyricist, and playwright Vinicius de Moraes wrote a play based on the story called Orfeu da Conceição. The play transported the Greek legend to modern day Rio de Janeiro during Carnival and updated the plot to be more contemporary. Marcel Camus was intrigued by this bold adaptation and decided to make a film version of Vinicius de Moraes’ play to be filmed entirely on location in Brazil. It would be an international co-production between Brazil, France and Italy. Camus had started out as a professor of painting and sculpture before he developed an interest in film. He soon found work in cinema assisting French directors such as Alexandre Astruc, Georges Rouquier and Jacques Becker under whose guidance he learned the craft of filmmaking. Camus made his first solo effort as a director with the 1957 film Fugitive in Saigon set during the war in Indochina. Black Orpheus would be his second feature film effort. For the screenplay, Marcel Camus collaborated with writer Jacques Viot, with whom he would go on to work together on two more films, “Os Bandeirantes” (1960) and “L’oiseau de Paradis” (1962). Wanting to shoot Black Orpheus in Brazil, director Camus made the decision to use mostly Brazilian actors. Most of them, including Breno Mello who played Orpheus, were not professional actors. Mello was a Brazilian soccer player when Camus invited him to star in the film. The only somewhat professional artist Camus used was Marpessa Dawn, an American dancer, who played Eurydice. Dawn also eventually became Mrs. Camus, though her marriage to the director ultimately ended in divorce. Camus hired noted cinematographer Jean Bourgoin to capture the rich, colorful images of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival on film. For the music, Camus brought in Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa to bring the vibrant rhythms of Brazil to life on the soundtrack. (tcm.com)
About Playwright Vinicius de Moraes
Vinícius de Moraes (October 19, 1913 – July 9, 1980,) Born Marcus Vinícius da Cruz de Mello Moraes in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His father, a scholar and poet, named Vinícius after a character in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s historical novel Quo Vadis. Born into a family that loved books and music, Vinícius pursued both fields and was an instrumental figure in modern Brazilian music. As a poet, he wrote lyrics for songs, which have become classics Vinícius de Moraes wrote his first poem at the age of seven, for a girl he knew in school and composed his first songs while a student at the Santo Ignácio School. Even at that young age, he showed a fascination with moving images, leading to yet another of his career paths. He attended college, graduating with a degree in law, but instead pursued music and poetry, publishing his first book of poems, “O Caminho para a Distância” (“The Road To Distance”) in 1933, the first of several collections that he published in that decade. In this collection, Vinícius expresses the anguish and constant opposition between matter and spirit, he uses mysticism to try to solve the clash between the two, with love taking on a negative connotation. His next book, “Forma e Exegese” (“Form and Literary Interpretation”) seems to find an explanation for uniting the material and spiritual worlds and is thus more positive. His writing becomes more interested in realistic, daily matters. Among his themes that concerned him, death and social worries stand out, as in the poem “Operário em Construção” (“Construction Worker”) and the play “As Feras” (“The Beasts”). In 1936 he took a position as representative of Brazilian Education Department and there met and became friends with the writers Manuel Bandeira and Carlos Drummond de Andrade, both of whom went on to international fame.
In 1938, he went to Oxford University to study English, returning to Brazil in 1941. While in England, he married his first wife, Beatrîz. In Brazil he worked as a film critic, becoming a friend of U.S. film director Orson Welles when he visited Brazil. A tour of Brazil with the American radical novelist Waldo Frank opened Vinícius’ eyes to the poverty around him, helping to shape his thoughts and his poetry. Two years later, he pursued a career as a diplomat, spending time in the United States, France and Uruguay. While in the U.S., Vinícus’ collection of poems, Sonetos e Baladas was released. His style of poetry had by now become enriched with a sense of social consciousness. He also wrote some of his most famous works “Livro do Sonetos” (“Book of Sonnets”), Procura-se um Amigo (“Looking for a Friend”), and “Para Viver um Grande Amor” (“To Live a Great Love”). His lyricism was written in the sensual style, which had become his trademark. Upon the death of his father in 1950, Vinícius returned to Brazil, and then in 1952 to France as second secretary to Brazil’s embassy. The next year his first samba, “Quando Tu Passas por Mim,” was released. In 1956 he met the unknown pianist, Antonio Carlos Jobim, who Vinícus commissioned to write the music for his first play, “Orfeu da Conceição.” In 1959 the play was made into the Academy Award winning motion picture, “Black Orpheus.” The songs of Jobim and Vinícius were recorded by many Brazilian performers of that time, including Gilberto’s first three albums, which were instrumental in the growth of Bossa Nova, both in popularity and in cultural influence. Among the songs from these albums, were the hits “Garota de Ipanema” (“Girl From Ipanema”), “Insensatez,” and “Chega de Saudade.” Among his poetry, there are many poems written for children, some of them become children songs. Vinícius de Moraes died in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on July 9, 1980 at the age of 66. (allpoetry.com)
About Antonio Carlos Jobim
Mr. Jobim was born in 1927 in Rio de Janeiro and grew up nearby in Ipanema. He played the guitar and piano as a child and at 14 began studying under the 12-tone composer Hans Joachim Koellrutter. He worked briefly for an architect in the 1940’s, but after hearing Duke Ellington and other American bandleaders perform in Rio, he decided to become a musician, performing in the small, crowded Rio clubs known as “inferninhos,” or “little infernos.” The trumpeter Bill Horne described Mr. Jobim’s samba style at the time as quite distinctive, “soft and sophisticated, in much the same way an American pop tune sounds with a subdued modern jazz treatment.” By the late 40’s Mr. Jobim was performing his own compositions, and in the early 50’s he found work as an arranger for a large Brazilian recording company. With the guitarist and composer Luis Bonfa, he wrote the samba-influenced score for the French-Brazilian film “Black Orpheus,” which retold the Orpheus myth in the setting of Brazil’s Carnaval. The movie was a worldwide hit and won an Academy Award for best foreign film in 1959. Mr. Jobim, who had become the music director for Odeon records, began collaborating with Joao Gilberto, who was mixing samba and jazz in what came to be known as the bossa nova. Their first single was “Chega de Saudade,” or “No More Blues,” which became a jazz standard. Bossa nova was a quiet revolution in Brazilian music. Built on the samba, it transferred the rhythms and messages of public celebrations to an intimate scale. Syncopated guitar chords replaced much of the percussion; melodies and harmonies echoed the twists of cool jazz, and lyrics were sly and elliptical, often sung in a whisper. Mr. Jobim’s songs, written with such lyricists as Newton Mendonca and Vinicius de Moraes, set a sophisticated standard for bossa-nova craftsmanship, influencing songwriters around the world. The bossa nova, and Mr. Jobim’s music, won an even wider audience when the saxophonist Stan Getz and the guitarist Charlie Byrd recorded the album “Jazz Samba” on the Verve label in 1962. The album, which included “Desafinado” and “Meditation,” reached the top of the pop charts. Mr. Jobim made his United States debut with Mr. Gilberto, Getz and Mr. Byrd at Carnegie Hall in 1962. Further acclaim came with the 1964 album “Getz/Gilberto,” which included “The Girl from Ipanema.” Mr. Jobim played piano on some songs. Mr. Jobim recorded several solo albums, including “Wave and Tide” (1967), “Stone Flower” (1970), “Urubu” (1975) and “Terra Brasilis” (1980), as well as scores for for films, notably “Bahia” (with Walter Queiroiz). With the renewal of interest in Brazilian music in the mid-1980’s, Mr. Jobim began performing again. In April he appeared at Carnegie Hall in a program celebrating the 50th anniversary of Verve records.
About Writer and Director Marcel Camus
Marcel Camus (21 April 1912 – 13 January 1982) was a French film director. He is best known for “Orfeu Negro” (“Black Orpheus”), which won the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival and the 1960 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Camus was born in Chappes, Ardennes, France and died in Paris. He studied art and intended to become an art teacher. However, World War II interrupted his plans. He spent part of the war in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Prior to directing films, Camus assisted filmmakers in France, including Jacques Feyder, Luis Buñuel, and Jacques Becker. He also had his own and prolific filmography. In 1960, Camus made his second Brazilian-themed film, “Os Bandeirantes” (“The Pioneers”). Twenty years after “Orfeu Negro,” Camus returned to Brazilian themes for “Otalia de Bahia,” based on a novel by Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado. In 1970, Camus made a World War II comedy, “Le Mur de l’Atlantique” (“The Atlantic Wall”), starring the well-known French comedian Bourvil. He ended his career working primarily in television. Marcel Camus married one of the stars of “Orfeu Negro,” Marpessa Dawn. He is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, France. (africanfilmny.org)