One of the most celebrated postwar musical films, Orfeu Negro managed the unlikely feat of winning the top prize at Cannes and the foreign-language film Oscar and Golden Globe. It managed the even more unlikely feat of helping to popularize the bossa nova in the United States. The music by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfa is indeed gorgeous, and Frank Sinatra, no less, ended up cutting an album with Jobim. Who in the world doesn’t love Orfeu Negro, Marcel Camus’s shift of the Orpheus-Eurydice myth from ancient Greece to modern Brazil, at Carnival time in Rio de Janeiro?
Well, I, for one. As irresistible as I find the film’s pulsating energy, its sheer colorfulness and exuberance, its bravura ordinary-folk dancing on a dime, its spectacle and charm, I am distressed by some of the film’s other elements. Coming ten years after the version that updated the myth to modern Paris, Jean Cocteau’s moodier, more arresting non-musical Orphée (1949), Camus’s film is something of a disappointment.
Its faults certainly can be rationalized. It is touristy, but, after all, Camus was a tourist in Rio. There is scarcely a hint of the dire poverty of its slum-dwellers, much less social analysis to contextualize this; but what’s a musical without pretty clothes? Isn’t it witty and satirical that the Underworld is represented by a bureaucratic agency? The myth more or less gets lost in the shuffle of movement and color; but might that not be a commentary on the indefatigability of indigent spirit in the face of the European character that Portugal imposed there? Enjoyment of Camus’s film requires the purchase of a bag of excuses.
Her emotions as changeable as sunshine into rain into sunshine again, Marpessa Dawn, a dancer from Pittsburgh, is a lovely Eurydice; but Breno Mello, a soccer player, is a blank as Orpheus. Do grown persons really skip in the streets hand-in-hand in Rio, even during Carnival? And in Brazil, what’s with these Greek names?
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