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Monday, 19 February 2007

Black Orpheus (1959)

There's music everywhere here, and thankfully it's provided by someone with the talents of Antonio Carlos Jobim. We're in Rio de Janeiro and it's time for Carnaval so everybody is singing or dancing or playing a musical instrument. The whole city is alive, the way I remember it was in New Orleans last time I was there, except more so. There's one point early on where I wondered what director Marcel Camus was showing me until I realised he was showing me how empty the rest of the city is where the carnival isn't.

As you'd expect from the title, the film is a translation of the old myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but in a different location with a different ethnic group, and dripping with musical flavour, exotic samba rhythms and rich colour. It's a joyous thing, because everyone is so alive. It's hard not to tap your feet and bob your head and smile, if not laugh outright in happiness at the world, especially when kids are telling roosters to hush so that they can hear Orpheus play Manha da Carnaval on his guitar. I've loved that for years but never realised it came from a film, let alone this one.

He's a tram driver, obviously a ladies man of long standing but who's about to get married to Mira who is beautiful yet remarkably full of herself. However Orpheus soon meets Eurydice, a young lady who has run away from home because she believes that a mysterious man is trying to kill her. He invites her to the Carnaval rehearsal, even though he's there with his fiancee who's playing the Queen of Day, but this mysterious man turns up to chase her and Orpheus gets to save her bacon. Next thing we know they're sharing the night and she's taking her cousin's place in the carnival as the veiled Queen of Night.

The actors are primarily new to film and I get the impression that they weren't even professionals, at least at this point in their careers. Yet they feel so natural that any lack of finesse isn't just acceptable but beneficial. Footballer Breno Mello debuts in film as Orpheus and he went on to make only six films over four decades. He's so natural it's almost impossible to imagine him not smiling. It's 47 years since Black Orpheus was released and I'd believe it if he was still dancing today. It's notable that when he stops dancing here is when Orpheus becomes lost.

Dancer Marpessa Dawn, the director's wife, is excellent as Mira. She had appeared in two films before this one but only as things like 'native girl sacrifice'. Better than either are Lourdes de Oliviera, perfect as Mira in the first of only two films she ever made, and Léa Garcia who lights up the screen as Eurydice's cousin Serafina, who alone of these actors seems to have turned her debut here into a career, if a slow one until the new century. Even the young Jorge Dos Santos is excellent and he's only a small boy here.

Really not much happens here. Orpheus falls for Eurydice but Death claims her. Orpheus wants her back. However the plot is nothing but a framework for Camus to build his rich exploration of a fresh ethnic world onto, and there's as much depth as you want to look for. I particularly liked the staircase that doubles for the descent into Hell, but that's just one of many such examples. I'm also sure there are others I didn't catch on first viewing because this feels like one of those films to come back to again and again. Another worthy early winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar!

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