Black Orpheus is, obviously, based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, and is a film version of a play that had appeared few years earlier. The stage production included music but was not a musical, as is also the case with the film (the play, incidentally, was readapted in the ‘90s with music by Caetano Veloso). It is set in the then modern context of Rio de Janiero, and as the title suggests is the story of Orfeu, a Black musician who drives a tram.
Orfeu is engaged to be married to Mira, though viewers can see that it is not something he is enthusiastic about when they go to get their marriage license. Orfeu meets a women named Eurydice in the opening and there are obvious chemistry. Throughout the first half there are jokes that reference the Greek myth, setting the stage for what comes next.
When Orfeo gets home from going to the marriage license office with Mira, he runs into Eurydice again, and ends up staying next door with her cousin. They fall in love. The crowds, colours and motifs of Carnaval provide a great backdrop for the action, and the masquerade creates an opportunity for the couple to secretly meet.
Eurydice is chased by a man dressed as death and as in the Greek myth Orfeo tries to go into the underworld to rescue her, passing the (one-headed) dog named Cerebus. There is a fantastic surreal scene in which he goes to the Office of Missing Persons and all that’s there is a janitor sweeping up piles and piles of paper. Although Orfeu is told that Eurydice is dead, he refuses to believe it.
The film is beautifully shot thanks to cinematographer Jean Bourgoin. It’s very vibrant and colourful, and also fairly faithful to the original story—though not as good as the Jean Cocteau feature made nine years earlier. It lacks the surreal edge that made that such a classic. Cocteau, of course, made a trilogy of films that touch on the Orpheus mythos.
The soundtrack is famous and bears some responsibility for starting the bossa nova craze in the US. The songs, which were composed by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá, have been covered numerous times by other artists. None of the actors were well-known outside Brazil, and lead Breno Mello was an amateur. Marcel Camus had been an assistant to Luis Buñuel. Although Camus was a French filmmaker, almost all of his films were made in Brazil.
Interestingly, Black Orpheus was former Pres. Obama’s mother’s favourite film (and the first foreign-language film she had ever seen), and he had conflicted views about it. Made by a white European filmmaker, the movie sometimes falls into the trap of exoticising the subject. In an interview, he noted: “My mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white, middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.” This doesn’t detract from Black Orpheus as a piece of art, and it was certainly rewarded with critical acclaim. It won the Oscar, the Golden Globe, Bafta for best foreign language film, the Palme d’Or for best film.
This Criterion edition includes the English dubbed soundtrack (dubbing foreign films was still common at that time). Features include archival interviews with the director and lead actress Marpessa Dawn, new interviews with Brazilian film scholar Robert Stam, jazz historian Gary Giddins, and Brazilian writer Ruy Castro, a French documentary about its cultural and musical importance then and now, and the theatrical trailer. The package also includes a booklet with an essay by Michael Atkinson.