Carnival celebrations abound this time of year in Europe and Latin America, and as Mardi Gras in New Orleans and other US cities. Recent news articles and photo collections reminded me of the 1959 Academy Award winning film Orfeu Negro, known as Black Orpheus in the U.S. In essence a modern re-telling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth with an all black cast, it is set against the backdrop of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.
Marpessa Dawn (left) and Breno Mello as Eurydice and Orpheus in "Orfeu Negro"
Eurydice arrives in Rio de Janeiro just at the start of Carnival. But she isn’t there to party: She’s on the run from a mysterious man who is intent on killing her. While hiding with her cousin in a favela, she meets Orpheus, local ladies’ man and leader of a samba school. They fall in love, as they believe they are destined. Eurydice’s stalker appears, and pursues her until she loses her life. Orpheus, refusing to believe she’s dead, begins a search to find her, leading him through the streets and dark places of Rio and Carnival.
Black Orpheus introduced the world to the culture of Rio de Janeiro with colorful vistas of the surrounding hills and the modern city, and of the joyful dances and activities of Carnival. There is even a glimpse of a Macumba rite of the Afro-Brazilian Umbanda religion.
And there is the samba. In nearly every minute of the film can be heard the incessant beat of drums and cowbells: the infectious rhythm of the samba. The samba music and dance was relatively new to Carnival in the 1950s, having been banned in Rio for many years, and the beat drives the celebration. The bossa nova, a blend of jazz, poetic lyrics and samba rhythm, made its introduction in Black Orpheus. Leading bossa nova creator Antonio Carlos Jobim released an album of bossa nova music a year before he and Luis Bonfa wrote the film’s soundtrack. The soundtrack was as great a hit as the movie, and bossa nova became and remains a popular music style.
Despite its popularity around the world, Black Orpheus was not without its critics. Some felt that the French director Marcel Camus focused more on the locales and the pageantry of Carnival, making the film more like a travelogue than a narrative, and completely ignoring the perspective of native Brazilians. Others said that the poverty of the “favelistas” – people who live in the favelas – was romanticized, downplayed and whitewashed, the characters being “charming, carefree, sexually joyful people.” Still others compared the characters to the black stereotypes seen in Hollywood films.
Though valid points, audiences embraced the film. For Brazilians, it was their culture displayed on film for the world to see, and one of few films where Afro-Brazilians see themselves. For others, it was a fascinating look at a culture during its most revered festival, set to one of the most vibrant music styles in the world. Black Orpheus won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1959.
The face of Carnival of Rio has changed, if pictures from this year’s festivities are any indication. However, the spirit of gaiety and spectacle of Carnival remains, just as it was documented in Black Orpheus.
The above blog is based on my article appearing in the Summer 2007 issue of CinemATL magazine.
Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus) is not available at CCLS libraries, and cannot be requested through PINES. Check a video rental store that carries foreign and art house titles for availability.
Read more about Carnival in Rio, as well as see images and video here.