I find movies to watch like most people do: hear about one from a friend, look into a professor’s suggestion (incredibly common in English and Film courses), or maybe read a particularly interesting article on a site with a delightfully designed rooster at the top. I can’t say that I often find award-winning Criterion Collection movies through indie band music videos, but I’ve been totally swept away by Arcade Fire’s new album, Reflektor, so I decided to look into a movie they cited as an influence on the album. Man, am I glad I did.
Black Orpheus (1959)
Plot: In an update of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, a young woman, Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), travels to Rio to escape a man that she believes is trying kill her. Rio is currently in the midst of Carnival, and a young man named Orfeu (Breno Mello)—who is remiss to be getting married to a rather crass lass named Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira)—falls in love with her. As the creepy dude, subtly named Death (Ademar Da Silva) closes in on Eurydice and Orfeu, the lively celebrations begin to fade in the face of fear and sadness.
For those unfamiliar with the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, it goes something like this: Orpheus, a poet and musician capable of superhuman charm is deeply in love with his wife Eurydice. Unfortunately, a satyr goes after Eurydice; in her attempt to escape, she is bitten by vipers and dies. Orpheus goes to the underworld and, with the power of his beautiful rock n’ roll (or whatever music they played then), convinces the gods there, Hades and Persephone, to let Eurydice go. There is but one stipulation: Orpheus cannot look back to Eurydice until they have both left the underworld. During the walk, Orpheus worries that he has been tricked, and turns around as soon as he exits the underworld, forgetting that Eurydice has not passed the threshold. She disappears into the darkness, never to be seen by him again.
As you can probably guess, this movie has some sad bits to it—although, surprisingly, it doesn’t rank very high on the Melville-Gladwin Sadness Scale (maybe a six). While I’m not an expert on the myth—and definitely not an expert on Brazilian/Rio/Carnival culture, I am under the impression that the underlying themes of the movie differ somewhat from the original story, making it less soul-crushing. Mainly, Black Orpheus is concerned with the nature of living and vitality.
Even for someone who is not terribly familiar with samba music and other cultural aspects of Carnival, the ubiquity of dancing and its association with liveliness is hard to ignore. Combined with animals appearing in numerous scenes and tons of diegetic (in-universe) music, the idea of being alive permeates the movie. Thus, when everything starts to go wrong, namely once Death shows up in Rio, the lack of music, animals, and dancing becomes significant, noticeable, and distressing.
The new focus on vivacity alters our perception of the love story between Orfeu and Eurydice, and the holistic view of living, loving, and playing music reshapes the myth in a fascinating way. Black Orpheus is both old and new, and while I can’t even imagine the depth for those familiar with the culture, history, and myth, the movie can speak clearly—and effectively—to almost anyone.
I will say, though, that those unfamiliar with the myth entirely might find the main characters lacking. One friend said that the character development isn’t fantastic, and she’s absolutely right. But in context of mythology, this makes sense, and doesn’t tarnish the experience terribly. Besides, while the plot is engaging, the other aspects of this movie really make it stand out, and director Marcel Camus deserves a lot of credit for bringing all the different parts together. The cinematography is absolutely incredible—thanks to the work of cinematographer Jean Bourgoin—with lush colors encapsulating the frame. The music is catchy as all hell, and it made me wish I was capable of dancing at any level. While all of the music and dancing is extremely significant, it’s also really beautiful, not to mention fun.
Black Orpheus is the type of movie that I imagine will grow on me even more as I continue to think about it, and for that I am glad I found out about it, even if it is a bit odd to discover a French-Brazilian recreation of a Greek myth from the music video of a Haitian–Texan–Canadian indie rock band.