Criterion // 1959 // 107 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // August 19th, 2010
The film that introduced Bossa Nova to the world...
Winner of the 1959 Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, where it beat out such cinematic heavyweights as The 400 Blows and Breathless, Black Orpheus introduced the world to the beauty of Brazil, the frenzied excitement of Carnival, and the smooth stylings of Bossa Nova. With their Blu-ray edition, Criterion invites the world to rediscover the beauty and magic that is Marcel Camus' Black Orpheus.
Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) arrives in Rio shortly before Carnival to stay with her cousin Serafina (Léa Garcia). It's there she meets trolley driver Orfeu (Breno Mello), who is instantly taken with the lovely Eurydice. Due to be married to the fiery Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), Orfeu quickly decides his path lies with the innocent Eurydice. Mira discovers Orfeu's plans to break off the engagement the day of the wedding and reacts as one would expect. Since this is based on a tragedy, it should not be unexpected that things don't go well for our star-crossed lovers. Having Death lurking around doesn't help much either.
Black Orpheus adapts Vinicius de Moraes' play Orfeu da Conceição, which itself was a adaptation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, setting the classic tale in a contemporary favela in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. Before Marcel Camus set out to make Black Orpheus, attempts by foreign filmmakers at making movies in Brazil were pretty much nonexistent. Orson Welles had attempted "The Story of Samba" as part of It's All True, but it was never completed and parts of the film were unceremoniously dumped into the ocean by RKO. To take stock of what Camus accomplished, one only need only look to the ecstatic reception his film received upon its release. "Ecstatic" seems an especially apt word, considering the whole film seems a release of color and passion. Black Orpheus was a joyous discovery of a foreign culture and way of living by way of its people, their music and the way the hardships of their lives are put on hold and their cares forgotten once a year. It's a testament to the freshness of this tale that it beat out such key films of the French New Wave as Breathless and The 400 Blows, while claiming 1960's Best Foreign Film Oscar.
It's hard to wrap one's brain around just how revolutionary Black Orpheus must have seemed at the time, if for no other reason than the musical styles it revealed. In fact, music is such key a component, the film could be described as a kind of naturalistic musical. There is no separation between the images captured, the music, and the people. And what music it is! Passionate and sensual, the soundtrack composed by Antônio Carlos Jobim quite literally opened the floodgates for Bossa Nova in the US, and rightly so. The score for Black Orpheus lead directly to Jobin's collaboration with Stan Getz, which in turn lead to the song "The Girl from Ipanema"...and the rest, as the wise people say, is history.
It's rare that a person can look back in time and locate the precise moment a cultural touchstone was unleashed, but Black Orpheus affords us just that opportunity. Combining music with the lushness of the Brazilian landscape, the beauty of Brazil's people, and the energy those people bring to their annual celebration, the film takes on the air of a pungent and dangerous cocktail. The pleasures which seem to rest on the surface of the movie have lead to criticism in some circles for the perceived postcard view it presents of the poverty and squalor so prevalent at the time. A fair point to raise, perhaps, but takes nothing away from the sheer energy Camus was able to capture with his camera. Part of this is certainly the ripeness and newness of Brazil to 1959 eyes, but the lion's share of it was achieved by the honesty of Camus' mostly non-actor cast. There is a nobility and grace to these performances which can't be underestimated or ignored. It's an honesty that gives the film a certain feeling of power; a power that fuels meaning to the tragedies of Black Orpheus, and this honesty shines through every frame. Indeed, it's the performances which truly cement the film's reputation. It these moments of truth, Camus captured something that even the greatest actors in the world have trouble conveying -- joy.
Camus would never again work on this level, save for one brief shining moment. His camera would capture the satisfaction that comes from the discovery that love, no matter how fleeting, is the most important thing and quite literally has the power to control the rising and lowering of the sun. The events which occur may be tragic, but the message is clear: with each new dawn there exists hope, and how we live and love matters. All things being equal, that's not a bad approach to take away from any film.
Crtierion's 1999 release had the dubious distinction of being one of their poorest early efforts, presenting an image which featured significant edge-enhancement and boosting. This new high definition transfer addresses those earlier flaws and stands as a sizeable, if not quite perfect, improvement. Comparing the two releases, it certainly appears as if this new version features more natural colors and skin tones, while also displaying inkier black levels. Because edge-enhancement has been reduced, the film looks a touch softer than its DVD predecessor, but I'm willing to wager it also looks more in line with its original appearance. The film sometimes betrays its age, but Black Orpheus has been cleaned up without sacrificing much in the way of detail, boasting a healthy amount of film grain. The lossless Portuguese 1.0 has also been cleaned up nicely; hiss-free with dialogue and music coming through in a way that's both clear and pleasing. Subtitles have been given a retrofit, with a font that is much easier on the eyes. Certain allowances must be made for the age of the film, but this is yet another top-flight job by the people at Criterion.
While the extras don't feature an expected commentary, they do include archival interviews with both Marcel Camus and Marpessa Dawn. Neither are particularly illuminating, but still worthy of their short running time. Of more interest are the interviews with film scholar Robert Stam, jazz scholar Gary Giddins, and Brazilian writer Ruy Castro; offering up a look at Black Orpheus from a modern social, cinematic, and musical context. Meatier still is the French documentary Looking for Black Orpheus, which analyzes the film, its musical roots, and its meaning to Brazil today. The extras are rounded out by the movie's theatrical trailer and a essay by Michael Arkinson. Generally, I look forward to the Criterion commentary tracks, but enough information is relayed in the documentary and featurettes that its absence is hardly missed.
Everything about Black Orpheus is a celebration, which is a funny thing for a movie based on a Greek tragedy that doesn't end well for anyone. Marcel Camus' film is an explosion of music, color, and passion, and Criterion has done their part by realizing it all on Blu-ray with precision and dedication. Minor flaws aside, Black Orpheus looks better than I ever could have imagined. An easy recommendation.
Not guilty. Now let's dance!
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Portuguese)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated