It isn’t often that a movie commences with a perfect summary of its own appeal. But that’s exactly what Black Orpheus does. Marcel Camus’ 1959 melodrama opens on a marble statue of its mythological namesake, a tableau of Greek tragedy set to the gentle strum of an acoustic ballad. But after no more than 10 seconds (and immediately following the appearance of the title), this black-and-white image seems to shatter into a hundred star-shaped shards. They fall away to reveal the film’s next and much more illustrative image: men smiling, dancing, and playing music under the Brazilian sun. The first shot prepares you for a funeral. The second one announces a celebration.
A surprise party is what Black Orpheus must have felt like, at least to American audiences of 1959. Much of the international cinema that was making its way stateside at the time was of a more austere nature. Think of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, which had opened in the United States the previous year, or the Italian neorealist classics slowly trickling into big-city art houses over the previous decade. Black Orpheus didn’t fit that mold. It was vibrant and energetic and colorful—a bright bacchanal of a movie. And by opening with a clever bait and switch, the film seemed to predict how it would explode conceptions of what movies (especially those from other countries) could offer.
In a way, the film’s first few seconds—that jarring transition from staidness to ecstatic movement—work as a metaphor for the larger changes happening in world cinema; 1959 was the year the French New Wave really broke, when a group of young filmmakers (many of them writers for the seminal film journal Cahiers Du Cinéma) began bending, breaking, and redefining the rules of moviemaking. Like a lot of the medium’s most significant movements, this one’s roots can be traced, at least partially, to the Cannes Film Festival. It was there, in 1959, that François Truffaut premiered his first feature, the coming-of-age milestone The 400 Blows, to great acclaim and much conversation, one year after the festival’s organizers banned him for criticizing them in print. There was also Alain Resnais’ debut feature, the elliptical Hiroshima Mon Amour, which played out of competition, supposedly because programmers didn’t want to offend Americans at the festival with a film so nakedly critical of the decision to drop the bomb. These are not the first New Wave films. But they might be the first to be instantly lumped together under that label.
The 400 Blows ended up winning Truffaut the Best Director prize at Cannes, effectively launching his filmmaking career, making a star out of 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud, and kicking off an unlikely franchise. And Hiroshima Mon Amour took home the International Critics’ Prize; it, too, would become a worldwide hit, and arguably as beloved and influential as The 400 Blows. But the jury, led by playwright Marcel Achard, opted to hand the top prize, the Palme D’Or, to a different French movie that traveled well. For convenience’s sake, Black Orpheus was sometimes categorized as a New Wave film. But Marcel Camus had few ties to the Cahiers crowd, and despite the movie’s popularity, he never achieved the repeat success or lasting legacy of near-contemporaries like Truffaut, Resnais, and Jean-Luc Godard. His Black Orpheus is more like the launch of an alternate-reality French New Wave, a revolution that wasn’t: Its big splash happened outside the radius of what his fellow countrymen were achieving, and the film now stands alone, in its own private sphere of acclaim.
A Brazil-France-Italy co-production, Black Orpheus transports the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to the favelas of Rio De Janeiro during the biggest festival in the world, Carnivale. The eponymous poet and musician has been re-envisioned as a trolley car conductor and noted lothario, wooing local beauties with his good looks, charisma, and skill with a guitar. Orpheus (Breno Mello) is engaged to the beautiful Mira (Lourdes De Oliveira), but his heart isn’t in the relationship. It beats more obviously for Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), a country girl who’s come to Rio to live with her cousin and escape a mysterious stalker who haunted her every step back home. Even as Mira continues to plan their nuptials, Orpheus cozies up closer to Eurydice, having apparently not read the tragic story—referenced aloud occasionally by the other characters—for which he and his new romantic conquest are named.
Before getting to the bleaker aspects of the source material (borrowed from a stage play, itself an adaptation of the Greek legend), Black Orpheus rides a loose romantic-comedy vibe, as Orpheus juggles his fiancée and his new squeeze, while still finding time to indulge a couple of neighborhood kids who believe that he makes the sun rise every morning with his guitar playing. If the plot is thin, it’s probably because Camus’ interest lies more with the flavorful setting: Having spent some time in Rio, the writer-director approached Black Orpheus as an attempt to capture the city’s energy—its people, its culture, its music. Entire scenes are devised around the festivities, to the point where the characters and conflicts often disappear into them. (Sometimes quite literally, as when Eurydice, new in town, is pulled onto a passing trolley and whisked down the street in a crowd of people.) Black Orpheus is close to a musical in its endless song-and-dance spectacle, though there aren’t really any “numbers.”
That nonstop-party vibe helps explains the immense popularity of a movie that would go on to win Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars and the Golden Globes, before basically igniting a bossa nova craze in the States. It’s also just an absurdly attractive film, in more ways than one. Camus shot in vivid Eastmancolor—the blue skies and blue waves pop, the verdant green of the landscape shines—and Black Orpheus joins the similarly music-obsessed The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg and the similarly mythic Gate Of Hell on a list of the most colorful of Cannes winners. The actors, too, are pretty easy on the eyes. Mello, a soccer player who had never acted before, and Dawn, an American with only a couple credits to her name, have the striking beauty and poise of instant movie stars, in addition to their naturalistic charms. It would be foolish to pretend that didn’t contribute to the film’s success.
But making life in Rio look like an endless jamboree didn’t sit well with everyone. The most common criticism of Camus’ picture, in Brazil and outside of it, is that it presents not a nuanced or realistic depiction of the country (or of black culture), but an exotic fantasy for white audiences. (Notably, President Obama shares this opinion and used it as a window into the relationship with his mother in his autobiography, Dreams From My Father.) There’s no doubt that Black Orpheus is an outsider’s vision of Brazil, made by a French tourist eager to soak up some of the spirit of a place he couldn’t call home. But by shooting on location, populating the movie almost exclusively with nonprofessional locals, and packing just about every available minute with region-specific music, Camus achieves at least a superficial authenticity. Furthermore, no one could call the film poverty porn—though whether it’s better to paper over the hardships of life in the slums than it is to wallow in them is up for debate.
In any case, the jubilation factor takes a serious dip during the film’s more surreal and downbeat backstretch, when Orpheus sets out to save his true love from the mysterious forces conspiring against her. There are sequences here that suggest a kind of proto-giallo film, as Eurydice is pursued by her tormenter, whose particular choice of costume erases any doubt as to what he really represents. And Camus leans into the fantastical element of his story during later scenes, like the one where Orpheus visits the haunted hallways of the missing-persons office (“You will not find missing people in papers,” a janitor says of the stacks of abandoned reports) before descending a spiral staircase into an underworld more symbolic than the one depicted in Jean Cocteau’s version of the tale. What’s remarkable about this third act is how Black Orpheus fulfills the demands of its adapted story while still keeping the action (relatively) grounded in the atmosphere of Carnivale. (Read one way, the scenes in the hospital and police station play like a rebuke to the idea that Camus’ Rio is just one big party. Don’t they show the sober reality unfolding “behind” the festival?)
Black Orpheus isn’t a perfect movie; it’s more sensorily than emotionally engaging, the hopping backdrop taking precedence over the love story happening against it. All the same, it’s odd that Camus didn’t enjoy a healthier career after winning the Palme. He made a few more movies—a couple of them in Brazil, none of them especially well-regarded—before spending the last decade of his life working in television. (He died in Paris in 1982.) But if Camus is destined to be remembered as one of the art form’s one-hit wonders, at least his one hit opened a big window for a lot of movie lovers—not just to another part of the world (however romanticized its depiction may be) but also to the livelier varieties of film being made all over. That opening transition says it all: The old cinema was over. Films like Black Orpheus were here to break it into pieces.
Did it deserve to win? A few years ago—and well before my time at this website—some AV. Club writers each announced their single favorite movie year. At the risk of spoiling my own pick if we ever revive the feature, I’ll say that if I had been on staff at the time, I very well might have selected 1959. This was the year of North By Northwest, Some Like It Hot, Rio Bravo, Shadows, Imitation Of Life, Pickpocket, Floating Weeds, Pillow Talk, Anatomy Of A Murder, Odds Against Tomorrow, and Fires On The Plain. None of those films, though, appeared at Cannes. And while Hiroshima Mon Amour might be my favorite movie of 1959—in part because it features what could be my favorite opening passage in cinema history—that wasn’t in competition, so I have to play fair and not select it. For an alternative winner, I’ll go instead with The 400 Blows, which remains a poignant, vivid portrait of how shitty childhood can be. It also ends with a moment as symbolically rich as the one that opens Black Orpheus—in this case, a shift from motion to still image, freezing time as cinema makes a big leap forward.
Next up: Adventurous “slow-cinema” master Michelangelo Antonioni heads to Swinging London for his English-language debut, Blow-Up (1966).