In 1959, the French-Brazilian-Italian co-production Black Orpheus became an international sensation. Thanks to the pulsating rhythms of a score by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfa, Marcel Camus' film played a pivotal role in popularizing bossa nova and samba music in America. The film also created for American audiences a collective vision of South America as a place of sunshine, sweat, vibrant color, and ever-present music and dance. As such, Black Orpheus remains a somewhat controversial European romanticization of Brazilian life—particularly the poverty of the favelas—while also standing tall as a dreamy Eastmancolor musical.
The awkwardly blunt title Black Orpheus sums up the movie, adapted by screenwriter Jacques Voit from Vinicius de Moraes's play Orfeu da Conceição, which in turn adapted the classical tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Perhaps a better title would have been "Bacchanal," as the setting is Rio de Janeiro's Carnival—with its primal partying—and the plotline is Greco-Roman. Or "Dance of Death," in that Death stalks the heroine through streets alive with rhythm. Or "House of the Rising Sun," given the notion—embraced by two local boys—that the hero's song makes each new day possible.
Soccer pro Breno Mello plays Camus's modern-day Orpheus, Orfeu, a guitar-playing streetcar driver with an eye for the ladies and a sunny disposition reflected in his Carnival costume. His fiancée Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira) is determined to take him off the market, and after all, her costume identifies her as "Queen of the Day." Eurídice (dancer Marpessa Dawn) arrives from out of town, on the run from a mysterious man who's threatened her life; she relies on the kindness of her cousin Serafina (Lea Garcia), a.k.a. "Queen of the Night."
Orfeu and Eurídice cannot resist each other, and their stolen passion cannot evade Mira for long. Soon, all are swept up in the pageantry of Carnival (as kindly Hermes explains, "No one can resist the madness"), a fleeting respite from the hardscrabble existence of daily life in the favelas (but, oh, those views from the hilltop shanties!). Voit's modernization of the story is clever enough, but it's Camus' colorful stylization that gives the film surprising emotional oomph as the characters stumble into hellish circumstances—in a just-right touch, Death's skeletal black and white stands in stark contrast to the lively color. Death's terror nothwithstanding, can this much life—and love—ever truly be defeated?
The film's seductive blend of mythology and travelogue earned it the Palme d’Or at Cannes and Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. In hindsight, these choices were safe ones, but there's still sensual pleasure in the urban scenery, colorful visions, and music and dance, most of it defined by joyful abandon. Who could resist the picture's theme: "This is how our love will be/Me for you and you for me/I've had enough of sadness/I'll make you happy/I want to live in peace"?
Criterion upgrades one of their DVD staples with a new special edition of Black Orpheus on Blu-ray (and, yes, DVD). New and old bonus features accompany a fine hi-def transfer that accurately and vibrantly delivers the film's crucial color. Detail is strong, shadow detail impressive, and the picture nicely cleaned up; the only nitpick is occasional and hardly noticeable flicker of color and contrast—for the most part the image is stable. Criterion provides two faithful audio options: Portuguese LPCM Mono and English Dolby Digital Mono; obviously, the former (which is subtitled) is more faithful, but both tracks deliver a clear, clean listening experience that pleasingly honors the original theatrical experience.
Bonus features begin with director “Marcel Camus” (3:23, HD) in a brief 1959 French TV interview timed to Cannes.
“Marpessa Dawn” (5:10, HD) is a 1963 French TV interview with the film's female lead.
In the new “Revisiting Black Orpheus” (16:27, HD), Brazilian film scholar Robert Stam puts the film into an international perspective; he deftly acknowledges the film's flaws while focusing on its appeal. It's an essential piece, with concise historical context.
New featurette “Black Orpheus and That Bossa Nova Sound!” (18:05, HD) allows jazz historian Gary Giddins and Brazilian author Roy Castro to discuss the film's strong influence on the popular music landscape.
The 2005 feature-length Looking for 'Black Orpheus' (1:28:48, HD) is a sprawling consideration of the film and its strange reflection of Brazilian life; in the process, the doc informs about Rio then and now. Participants include actors Breno Mello and Léa Garcia, musicians Gilberto Gil, Seu Jorge, Roberto Menescal, and Milton Nascimento; filmmaker Carlos Diegues; film historian Tunico Amancio; and Camus assistant Silvio Autuori.
Last up is the film's “Trailer” (4:20, HD). The set also includes a sixteen-page, full-color booklet with an essay by film critic Michael Atkinson.
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