“Black Orpheus” is not a great film, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is fun in an old-fashioned way. Viewed from today, it is easy to see how audiences in 1959 were caught up the freewheeling adaptation of the Orpheus legend into a travelogue journey through Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. And no explanation is needed for the popularity (both in 1959 and today) of its infectious bossa nova score by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfa, which brought Brazil’s music tradition to the wider world.
But contemporary standards might question a lot of the film’s supposed charm. Its view of black Brazilians who are too happy dancing and singing to notice the slums where they live and the poverty of their lives come across today as painfully condescending. Scenes where the pretty women in the slum get their groceries for free by kissing the fat, white local merchant have an uneasy racist and sexist residue to them now. And don’t get me started about how the black characters use of watermelon and switchblades!
Still, the film can be recommended for the charming performances by the film’s gorgeous leads: soccer player-turned-actor Breno Mello as Orpheus (this time, a guitar-strumming cable car driver) and Pittsburgh-born Marpessa Dawn as Eurydice (here presented as a country girl making her first venture to the big city). The film’s climactic sequence where Orpheus and Eurydice are briefly reunited during a Macumba ceremony is a truly chilling work of art (it is worth sitting through the entire film just for that extraordinary moment). And the restored Eastmancolor print now in theatrical circulation allows viewers the rare chance to see “Black Orpheus” on a big screen.
Yes, there is also the music. It is impossible to get that out of your system once you hear it.
“Black Orpheus” is playing in the “Premiere Brazil!” series at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, although in a way its presence there is something of a cheat. Yes, the film was made in Brazil and it is in Portuguese – but “Black Orpheus” is actually a French film, helmed by Marcel Camus. In fact, it won the Best Foreign-Film Oscar as a French entry. It is ironic that the movie that put Brazil on the world cinema map was actually made by a Frenchman. You can’t blame that on the bossa nova!