Old Ass Movies: Black Orpheus (1959)

By  · Published on January 30th, 2011

Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it.

This week, Old Ass Movies presents the story of two star cross’d lovers who find themselves miles and years away from their origin. A retelling of the tragic Orpheus and Eurydice tale, Black Orpheus ditches the classical Greek setting and opts instead for the rich sights and sounds of Brazil during Carnaval.

It’s a beautiful story set to unending drum-beats and a madness to which everyone succumbs.

Black Orpheus (1959)

Directed by: Marcel Camus

Starring: Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn, Lourdes de Oliveira, Lea Garcia, and Adhemar da Silva

Even though Orpheus (Breno Mello), a trolley driver, is engaged to be married to the beautiful and showy Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), he’s not exactly enthusiastic about it. Sure, she can shake her God-given talents like no other woman in the whole city of Rio de Janeiro, but she’s also viciously jealous, short-tempered and demanding.

Enter Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), a shy young girl from the country trekking to see her cousin Serafina (Lea Garcia) in Rio in order to run away from a man she claims is trying to kill her.

Orpheus and Eurydice don’t fall in love at first sight, but that hardly matters. Soon they will, and they’ll do it to the undulating rhythms of sweat and celebration as the Brazilian night explodes with colorful music, grinding bodies covered in ostentatious costumes, and adult beverages flowing like the Atlantic coastal waters.

Director Marcel Camus seemed to give equal weight to the love story and the celebration of the new setting. Half of the film (and that’s no exaggeration) is filled with singing, guitar playing, dancing, and picture postcard shots of Rio. It’s part incredibly effective advertisement for the festival and part tragic love story. Still, both elements feed off each other in equal measure – so much so that it’s easy to imagine that Eurydice might have not given Orpheus the time of day if it hadn’t been Carnaval. As a result, unlike most movies that seem to use sprawling geographical shots and party scenes as filler, Camus and company fill the movie with tourist enticement that’s filled to the brim with story and character-altering plot.

And how beautiful it all is. From the multi-colored dresses to the clean arpeggios of a rickety acoustic guitar that sings for the right player, this movie is an experience for every sense. It puts on display the environment in which we all hope to fall in love.

Of course that’s just what happens. After enough dancing and staring into each other’s eyes, Orpheus and Eurydice create a bond that’s soaring in its simplicity. There is no question. They love each other. It’s fundamental, a part of their DNA and destiny.

Unfortunately, that love comes with a price. Not only is Mira none too pleased about her man’s sudden disinterest in her, but the man Eurydice was running from has caught up to her, and he’s wearing a Carnaval-appropriate skeleton costume and a Carnaval-inappropriate desire to commit murder.

As innocent as it begins, the film takes a sharp detour with the ironic joy of the festival in the background. People are celebrating as hard as they will all year while the lives of a few of their neighbors are unraveling. Duality is the featured player in Black Orpheus. The casual love of Mira vs the unending love of Eurydice. The bright costumes and music vs the sense of terror that a mindless, drunken mob can bring. Carnaval vs Lent. Love vs Death. The hope of a new companion vs the fear of losing that precious person.

Perhaps the most important duality here, though, is reality vs mythology. This is a mythic story after all, and it would be difficult to retell it without a little big of magic. For this, playwright Vinicius de Moraes (whose play was the basis for the script written by Camus and Jacques Viot) turns a man wearing a skeleton costume into the spectre of Death, a staircase into the descent into Hades, a stray dog into Cerberus, and a hoodoo ritual into the chance for Orpheus and Eurydice to reunite.

All of these elements flow perfectly from the exotic nature of the locale. Every element of the production is meant to confuse and disorient (which makes the calming effect of Marpessa Dawn’s smile all the more welcome). It’s a movie that excites and relents only long enough for the viewer to catch the breaths he or she lost during the dancing and revelry. It’s simultaneously a frivolous movie about outfits and dance-styles and an important work about the nature of our deepest, most transcendent emotions.

It’s also important to note that Camus never uses the poverty of the film for shock value. The entire story takes place in a favela (and was shot in one) that overlooks the big, rich city skyscrapers, but the people are joyous, have their humble homes, and never seem to be in need of food. In fact, economic status is never even really brought up (except when Orpheus picks up his working class weekly paycheck, and Mira calls him “loaded”). These people are all of us, every single one of them an everyman (that has the good fortune to be able to sleep outside on hammocks under the stars).

Over all, the movie’s beauty cannot be overstated. It’s language and characters are as vibrant as the samba steps being paraded down the streets. Yet, it’s a tragedy that’s simply found its way to a more lively, tropical locale. The passion between Orpheus and Eurydice radiates on screen, the fear of death (and his inevitability) strikes at a carnal level, but the sun continues to rise (and the music continues to play) even when those we love are gone.

A story of hope vs a story of loss.

Shun the modern and read more Old Ass Movies

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.