Although Marpessa Dawn's acting career went nowhere, most male viewers were smitten with that shy doomed exotic wildflower surrounded by her more carnal cousins in Black Orpheus. The fact that she stood revealed as an apiring dancer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, didn't change things. Forever warm and young, her Eurydice cannot fade, and in restored Eastmancolor storied Black Orpheus/Orféu Negro is a fragile gem in the crown of eleven-film Premiere Brazil!, the fourth such annual MoMA-Rio de Janeiro Film Festival joint presentation.
Palme d’Or at Cannes and foreign film Oscar, the 1958 adaptation of Vinitius De Moraes’ stageplay Orféu da Conceição -- by Moraes, Jacques Viot and French director Marcel Camus -- is a simple relocated retelling of the story found in Romans Virgil and Ovid. Some have not unfairly criticized the leads’ acting, and while it may be that, drawn in broad strokes, sinewy Serafina (Léa Garcia) and buxom brassy burgundy Mira (Lourdes De Oliveira) do play more to the groundlings’ taste, Eurydice and her guitar man Orpheus (Breno Mello) communicate subtly through eyes, feet and music.
Like the leading lady, neither previously nor subsequently did Camus produce anything of note and even here is guilty of the colonialist’s plantation mentality. But sensibilities have changed since then, as have the former capital’s favelas and thoroughfares, and this ultimate celebration of the breathtaking city, its carnival, and the frenetically building ambient samba of Luiz Bonfá and Antonio Carlos Jobim, is a sad love story become visual and aural experience. Whatever the shortcomings, they fade as the refurbished age-old tale draws us in and makes it ours.
Before Lent, country girl Eurydice arrives by ferry to seek her cousin Serafina. Demure in white and pigtails, she draws the kindness of the innocent--blind men, children and soft-spoken trolley station guard Hermes (Alexandro Constantino; Mercury is the Latin name for this gods’ messenger) -- and the good-natured appraisals of the mostly male street throngs. In anticipation of the floats and parades, the place is already restive, as, lost and overwhelmed, she boards conductor Orpheus’ streetcar 1720 until the end of the line and, the sole passenger left, is directed to walk further uphill.
Everywhere is in a growing frenzy of dance and constant music. The girl’s relative is kind if disappointed that the visitor is not her own slow-witted gluttonous sailor suitor from Montevideo, Chico (Valdemar De Souza), while the neighborhood’s United Babylon Samba School parade leader and ladies’ favorite Orpheus strums his guitar redeemed out of hock and avoids flirtatious jealous fiancée Mira. Kite-flying hero-worshipping urchins Benedito (Jorge Dos Santos) and buddy Zeca (Aurino Cassiano) are instinctively attracted to the timid newcomer, and the guitarist Lothario’s dalliance turns, too, to infatuation and then tender love.
Made nervous by crowds and Mina’s bossy cattiness, the skittish girl has greater reason to be afraid: “I ran away. A man I’m sure wants to kill me came to the farm.” Serafina makes light of that probably randy predator, and her new love “will protect you always, from everything, you’ll never be frightened again.” But Zeca reports “just some guy in a mask looking for you,” and, as sweaty Cariocas seethe into climactic night, Mina and a Death-costumed character (Ademar Da Silva) stalk the lovers.
Separated from her protector-lover and terrified, the girl bolts, followed by unhurried Death, into the empty high-voltage trolley depot lit by red emergency bulbs. The hero arrives, only to fall to the villain’s ironic trap -- an electric cable substituted for the viper of legend. One kills what one loves, only here doubly, as, led past barking Cerebus by a Charon janitor from Missing Persons to a black magic-Catholic church, the lover looks back to the beloved’s voice but hears, “You killed me, Orpheus.” From there to the morgue, to reclaim her body, carry it home, greet the sunrise, be united in death as infuriated Mina rushes, “I’ll kill you both!”
The original Muse-child Orpheus’ seven-stringed lyre, the Brazilian one’s guitar, charmed the sun’s disk into returning. Taking in hand the cheap instrument, Zeca will carry on tradition, while a beautiful child in white dances sensually beyond her years and the two boys follow her lead. Nature, lovers, love and the golden sun descend to Hades but to be reborn in ancient cycle. So, too, black-cast Black Orpheus, dated in its sentimentality but timeless in splendor.
(Released by Lopert Pictures Corporation; not rated by MPAA.)