A blind man on the docks enthuses, “You will love Carnival,” but as streetcar conductor Hermes tells Erídice as she arrives in Rio at the start of Orfeu Negro, “No one can resist the madness!”
The same could be said of Marcel Camus’ 1959 cinematic masterpiece, which is now available as a Criterion Collection release. No one can resist the breathtaking beauty or the heart-breaking love story, either. Orfeu Negro, or Black Orpheus, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. It’s a simple retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set to a samba soundtrack and placed in the context of Carnival, and it’s all the more powerful for its simplicity, stunning visuals, vibrant sounds and modern setting.
On the eve of Carnival celebrations, Orfeu (Breno Mello) is pushed into becoming engaged to the fiery Mira (Lourdes De Oliveira), one of many girls in the village on the cliffs above the city who has fallen in love with him and his considerable musical talents. The village children say that Orfeu’s guitar, along with his enchanting voice, is what causes the very sun to rise over the sea each morning). Meanwhile, Mira’s friend—and Orfeu’s neighbor—the fun-loving Serafina (Lea Garcia) is preparing her costume for the festivities, while waiting for her lover to return, when she’s surprised by the sudden appearance of her cousin, Erídice (Marpessa Dawn).
Erídice is frightened and in flight. She is being stalked by the spectre of death (Adhemar Da Silva), but everyone dismisses this in their preparations for the following day. Erídice is captivated when she hears Orfeu’s song of love, and he, in turn is entranced by her beauty during a dance in the village square. Their love is instantaneous and undeniable, and Camus conveys this with every element as his disposal. Passion pulses in the beat of the music. The choreography communicates the insistent yearning of the lovers, while the rudimentary surroundings also stir images of that primal urge. Desire burns in their eyes as the low, flickering lighting intensifies the heat between them.
It’s a brief but powerful scene that portrays true love and searing lust in all their provocative potency. Just watching it will leave you breathless.
Orfeu takes Erídice to have a Carnival costume made, for she and not Mira will now be Queen of Day to his king. However, seeing the face of death in the window, Erídice flees in terror with death in pursuit and Serafina and Orfeu not far behind. This is a long but masterful sequence, as Erídice rushes through the dark, brushing past tall grasses, running toward the sea. It very effectively heightens the sense of mortal danger that she must certainly feel.
This chase is intercut with Orfeu’s frantic calling of her name and Serafina’s scrambling after them. Euridice seeks shelter in Serafina’s hut, but is scared away by her cousin’s drunken sailor of a lover, so the chase continues. Somewhat inexplicably, given her initial reaction, it’s here that Serafina gives up—her man has returned, so her cousin is no longer a concern. Orfeu perseveres, in what is to be a brilliant foreshadowing of the film’s later scenes. He catches up to Erídice just as death has her cornered near the cliffs. Fainting with fear, she collapses in Orfeu’s arms and death gives a reprieve with a warning he will return.
The image of Orfeu carrying Erídice back through the long grass is a gorgeous one, and Camus is again in no hurry to replace it. He eventually does, with the lovers at Orfeu’s seaside shack, where Orfeu promises to protect her and chastely takes up a sentry position outside. Of course, Erídice is drawn to him all the more by his selflessness, and possibly by the sounds of Serafina and the sailor from next door, and their love is consummated by the morning of Carnival.
As in the original myth, Erídice is disguised and only Orfeu knows her when she comes out to dance in the Carnival competition, but you cannot fool death—or a woman scorned—for long. Mira realizes she has lost her prize, and vows to kill Erídice, but death has already made plans for that. It’s here that all Camus’s fabulous use of foreshadowing begins to become apparent. Eurídice runs through the streets of Rio, amid the madness of Carnival, with death fast on her heels. Orfeu follows, but is detained along the way. By the time he reaches the darkened streetcar station, death has once again cornered Eurídice, this time atop a platform. She jumps, clinging to the streetcar cables and, upon hearing her screams, but unable to see her in the dark, Orfeu fatefully throws the electrical switch. She crumples to the floor and death smiles.
Orfeu is knocked out shortly after Eurídice’s fall, so when he comes around, her body is being taken away. His friend Hermes tells him she is dead but Orfeu insists their love is so strong that they cannot remain apart. This part of the story is wrenching as we watch the agony with which Orfeu is filled as he attempts to follow Eurídice’s body. The jubilant mayhem of Carnival has become a violent riot around him as he journeys with Hermes across a dirty and increasingly desolate Rio.
As they search the missing persons department and eventually find where she has been taken, we are shown scenes that, again, use every element to express exactly where we are. Hell is a hospital, complete with various levels full of distressing images. It’s a stroke of genius as far as metaphors go, but it’s difficult to watch.
Hermes leads Orfeu to a room where some sort of ritual is being performed, and people are chanting and dancing to raise the dead. Orfeu raises his magical voice, summoning the soul of his lost love. Because he is Orfeu—he can call the sun to the sky—she answers. When Eurídice begins to speak, when she is so close to coming back to him, he cannot resist turning back to look too soon, and finds himself facing an ancient woman with zombie eyes.
This scene, though not gruesome, is perhaps more disturbing than any before it, and rightly so. Camus has effectively illustrated the idea that lost love is love forever lost with just one look in those lifeless eyes. Orfeu knows he has lost, it’s over.
However the film isn’t quite finished, for he does finally find Eurídice, in the morgue, where she is as lifeless as the old woman’s eyes. Forever faithful—he vowed to protect her always—he carries her body back across the city, its streets now reverently quiet and empty in the pre-dawn light. The homecoming journey, and the image of his love in his arms again recalls earlier moments in the film. It’s utterly devastating, and lyrically beautiful (and if you aren’t crying at this point, I would be surprised).
Orfeu climbs the path to his village with all the weight of his emotions on his shoulders and Eurídice in his embrace, where, at the top of the hill he encounters Mira fighting with Serafina and other villagers. In her rage at seeing the lovers return together before sunrise, she throws a stone which strikes Orfeu squarely on the temple causing him to tumble backward from the cliffs edge. It’s sudden. It’s shocking. It’s an incredibly mythic image as the camera moves from Mira’s anguished expression over the edge to show the lovers entwined below in their final embrace. The shot lingers just long enough to imprint itself indelibly before returning to the scene above, where the children are worried that the sun will sleep in the sea forever.
One of them fetches Orfeu’s guitar and begins to strum. “You are Orfeu, now,” his companion exclaims as the horizon begins to brighten. A little girl approaches and asks what he is doing. When she is told that he is raising the sun, she tells the boys to follow her, and they begin dancing down the path in pursuit. It’s a new day, the sun is in the sky and the cycle starts afresh.
There’s no question that the tale is timeless no matter where or when the story is set, and you cannot deny that the spectacular cinematography makes Black Orpheus a thrill to see, but it’s the score that really makes the movie resonate. The pervasive bossa nova beat bewitches, beckoning for everyone to come along as it’s rhythm ripples through Rio. Composer Luis Bonfá worked on the score with Antonio Carlos Jobim, who wrote the three lyrically spellbinding songs in the film. The music is as emotionally affecting and magical as the story, and not simply because music is integral to the plot. It, and the film as a whole, is mesmerizing.
The Criterion Collection edition has done a superb job of preserving that quality. The newly restored high-definition digital transfer looks and sounds fantastic. There is improved English subtitle translation and an optional dialogue track dubbed in English, however, it leaves a lot to be desired in the accent and inflection, which detracts glaringly from the rest of the film. It’s infinitely more beautiful in the original Portuguese, and it’s easy to follow the verbal exchanges even without the subtitles, sometimes especially without the subtitles (they are improved over earlier versions, but they aren’t perfect.)!
The bonus disc features include a trove of archival interviews, including those with director Camus and actress Marpessa Dawn, and new discussions with Brazilian cinema scholar Robert Stam, author Ruy Castro and jazz historian Gary Giddins; the theatrical trailer and a French documentary called Looking for Black Orpheus, exploring the film’s musical and cultural impact. Additionally, the Criterion Collection of Black Orpheus contains a companion booklet with an essay by film critic Michael Atkinson. All of these features are, naturally, quite beautifully presented, as befits a film of such arresting and ageless beauty, but it’s still Orfeu Negro itself that makes this set so irresistible.