3.5 out of 5 stars

In the ancient Greek myth, Orpheus and Eurydice were deeply in love. Given a lyre by Apollo, Orpheus could play his instrument so wonderfully that nothing in the world could resist his mellifluous melodies. Meanwhile, Eurydice was known to be one of the most beautiful women in all the land, and was often found walking through the woods amongst the forest nymphs. But tragedy soon struck: a snake bit Eurydice, killing her instantly.

Orpheus was so devastated by the loss that he resolved to rescue her from death itself. Travelling into the underworld, he traversed the River Styx and lulled Cerberus to sleep, right before singing Hades a song on his lyre. Even the God of the Dead was moved: he promised Orpheus that Eurydice would follow him back to the land of the living, if he could only restrain himself from looking back at her. Our hero agreed, but fearing he had been tricked, or that Eurydice had lost her way, he turned to see her just before they reached the land of the living—she disappeared forever.

This tragic myth is adapted for present-day audiences in director Marcel Camus’ seminal film Black Orpheus / Orfeu Negro. Orfeu (Bruno Mello) is set to play his guitar at Carnaval. He plays so beautifully that some claim his music causes the sun to rise. He is engaged to marry Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), who’s the Queen of Carnaval, but it’s apparent that Orfeu is not eager to tie the knot. Then, when Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) arrives in Rio de Janeiro, Orfeu finds himself inexplicably attracted to this young woman, with both of them believing they have met each other before…

Though Black Orpheus won the Academy Award for ‘Best International Feature’, the Golden Globe for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’, and even the coveted Palme d’Or, the film itself has been criticised by Brazilians. Film critics and scholars have argued the film is guilty of exoticising foreign culture, as well as perpetuating negative stereotypes about Brazilian people. With everyone in the movie either playing music or dancing seemingly uncontrollably, it seems to be a fair accusation.

However, if one can ignore the unfortunate stereotypes present in the film, there is plenty to appreciate. The sublime cinematography, powerful symbolism, and the skilful adaptation of a classic myth into a contemporary period lend the film a poignant air. Though it occasionally suffers from pacing issues, Marcel Camus’ much-studied and universally celebrated work has a tragic atmosphere that is powerful 65 years later.

The first thing you will notice about this film is that it’s stunningly beautiful. The mountainous scenery fills the screen with an abundance of lush, bright greens, which are contrasted by the vibrant colours of the city. Yellows, pinks, and reds create a resplendent colour palette that feels akin to a magical realm. These radiant environments may have well gone on to inspire the production design of Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971); both feel utterly fantastical, so the viewer feels as though they have stepped into another realm.

This is amplified by the depiction of Carnaval itself. The whole festival feels like a candy-coloured fever dream, with love, jealousy, and death hanging on the horizon. There’s such a sense of scale to these sequences that one truly feels like the entire city is alive, moving as one to the sound of the music. Given the sheer size of the scene, the blocking and staging, along with cinematographer Jean Bourgoin’s shot selection here, is impeccable. Long takes are captured to make the viewer feel as though they are present at the biggest party in the world.

Perhaps the only criticism one might level to these sequences is that they are well and truly long. Sometimes it feels a little interminable. This is exacerbated by the fact that the drumbeat continues almost ceaselessly throughout the entire film, regardless of location changes or what is happening onscreen; the party chases us without respite.

This brings us to the first serious drawback of the film: the Brazilian people are portrayed as non-stop partygoers. Initially, this feels like an unfair criticism, as the film is set during Carnival, one of the biggest festivals in the world. However, after a while, you begin to understand the critique; everyone is incessantly dancing and seems to care for little else.

What’s worse, the Brazilians are depicted as rather dim-witted. Furthermore, the characters are predominantly interested in sex, argue fiercely, and demonstrate other stereotypically passionate behaviour. This was so bad that Vinicius de Moraes, who wrote the play on which the film was based, walked out of the screening.

However, one could argue reasonably that, as the film was based on a myth, a little exaggeration of real life was permissible. While Camus could have opted for a very sober interpretation of the story, it would be unfair not to point out that much of Greek myth is populated by fiery characters. Hera is constantly jealous and largely characterised by spite. Ares is wrathful and Hades is duplicitous. Moreover, roughly 95% of the problems in Greek myth occur because Zeus simply couldn’t keep it in his trousers.

Suffice to say that mythology is filled with mercurial characters, who often have sex, schemes, or violence on their minds. It doesn’t seem too incongruous to have our protagonist behave as a lascivious philanderer. Ultimately, some of the film’s representation issues seem more egregious than others.

While a tighter integration of the two narratives arguably would have improved the story—the Orpheus and Eurydice mythos is introduced quite late in the story—the film captures the surreal atmosphere of such supernatural folklore superbly. This is aided by the wonderful symbolism employed throughout. Freedom becomes a key theme, with many characters referring to Eurydice as a caged bird. This motif foreshadows her tragic fate: eternal imprisonment in Hell. Her destiny, though sadly inexorable, is shown to be the work of fate; there is something greater than Orpheus and Eurydice.

This concept is visually represented during her death. As Eurydice is rushed to the hospital in the ambulance, it travels through a tunnel that flickers with light. The choice of a tunnel as a symbol of her journey is apt: it represents her solitary passage across the River Styx, the ferry for lost souls journeying into the underworld.

One could also argue that Eurydice’s death in both the myth and the film is remarkably similar: the snake’s venomous bite is replaced in this modern retelling by a sharp electric shock. Perhaps a less subtle reference to the story’s mythical origins is Cerberus’ appearance—as a regular guard dog named Cerberus. While this last reference feels a touch on the nose (or on the snout, in this case), it still works effectively.

More examples of the spellbinding symbolism can be found in Orfeu’s pursuit of his beloved. As he searches for Eurydice’s body, he wanders through the deserted halls of an empty building, and the scene has a completely magical atmosphere. When he descends a spiral staircase, clearly emblematic of Orpheus’s descent into the underworld, it represents the peak of the film’s visual symbolism.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the film ends in tragedy, much like the myth that inspired it. Even more astonishing is the fact that, in real life, Marpessa Dawn and Bruno Mello died only 42 days apart from each other, both from heart attacks. Make of that what you will… Although the mythological origins of the tale do a superb job of amplifying the story’s themes, it would work just as well on its own. Children playing guitars, dancing, and hoping for sunrise is poetic all by itself, without the need for mythical connections.

The story is infused with an atmosphere of love and passion, of despair and longing. The idea of supernatural forces keeping soulmates apart—whether through fate or as a result of our personal failings—becomes a saddening motif, expertly conveyed by Bourgoin’s cinematography.

Camus’ film crafts a lyrical slice of cinema by combining Greek myth with the famous Brazilian festival, even though his understanding of the latter was rightly criticised. While there is wholly valid criticism attached to this film, it remains a stunning exercise in allegory and symbolism, making for one of the most electric and vibrant tragedies you’re ever likely to see.


frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Marcel Camus.
writers: Marcel Camus & Jacques Viot (based on ‘Orfeu da Conceição’ by Vinicius de Moraes.)
starring: Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn, Marcel Camus, Fausto Guerzoni, Lourdes de Oliveira, Léa Garcia, Adhemar da Silva & Alexandro Constantino.