A rhythm beats nearly constantly throughout Black Orpheus, Marcel Camus’ 1959 arthouse hit. In this retelling of the Orpheus myth, the beat draws its characters along a cycle of life and death as it repeats a story with timeless resonance situated in a particular time and place. That place, unfamiliar to much of the world before Black Orpheus, is Rio de Janeiro at the height of Carnival, specifically the favelas resting high above the hills and looking down on the modern steel city below. It’s home to Breno Mello—the film’s modern Orpheus—an easygoing, guitar-strumming cable-car operator with a reputation as a ladies’ man. Nonetheless, he’s on the verge of marrying his assertive fiancée Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira). But the arrival of a woman named Eurydice (the stunning Marpessa Dawn) disrupts those wedding plans, even while a Carnival-goer costumed as Death himself threatens the modern-day Orpheus and Eurydice’s fated-to-be love.
In his essay accompanying this new edition of the film, critic Michael Atkinson refers to Camus as a “one-hit wonder.” He means that descriptively, not disparagingly. Camus’ other films remain largely un-discussed—and good luck finding them—but Black Orpheus stands on its own as a brilliant one-off. Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá supply the bossa nova that the film helped introduce to the rest of the globe. Rio supplies the scenery. Between them, Camus places a pulsing parade of abundant humanity enacting a pageant suspended somewhere between reality and myth.
The movie itself hangs somewhere between fantasy and mid-century verisimilitude, using the vibrant Rio slums as a counterpoint to the long shadows cast by its modern buildings, and presenting a back-alley Umbanda shrine with an eerie reverence that contrasts with the uncaring emptiness of the halls of bureaucracy. Camus, a Frenchman, undeniably engages in some idealized cultural tourism, as Brazilian cinema expert Robert Stam observes in a special feature that throws a little cold water on what’s come before. He isn’t wrong, but it’s easy to forget such problems with a film so intoxicating from the first frame to the last. And dwelling on such issues means watching the margins while the focus remains on what’s eternal and universal in the human experience. The Orpheus myth moves from beauty to desolation before, here at least, circling back with the reliability of the dawn. Camus gets it right, presenting a song- and sun-drenched vision of life so beautiful that death seems unthinkable. And then it inevitably arrives, leaving behind old stories, and new voices to sing about them.
Key features: Assorted interviews, old and new, with those involved with the film and those touched by it. Also Looking For “Black Orpheus,” a feature-length 2005 documentary revisiting the film’s origins and impact.