Marcel Camus' 1959 film Black Orpheus is the Rosetta Stone of favela chic. The film's portrayal of what were then underexposed aspects of Brazilian culture -- Carnaval, bossa nova music, voodoo, black people -- planted an image in many people's heads that came to represent country. As revealed by The Criterion Collection's new Blu-Ray, Black Orpheus is still an absorbing and beautiful film. However, some elements of the film don't resonate as strongly as they did in1959.
Marcel Camus' film, which is derived from Vincinius de Morae's musical play Orefu De Conceição, is a take on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Here, the tale of the lovers is transferred from Greece to the favelas during Carnaval in Rio de Jainero. Orpheus (Bruno Mello) is a street car conductor whose true passion is singing and playing guitar (Orpheus was associated with the lyre). He is engaged to a vain and jealous woman named Mira (Lourdes de Oliveras). When Orpheus encounters Eurydice (American actress Marpessa Dawn), the pair are drawn together by fate (or lust). As is the case in the Greek myths, their love affair is doomed. Black Orpheus' primary appeal is aural and visual. It unfolds with an unending array of bright colors, beautiful bodies swaying and flowing, and pulsing sounds. Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfá's music, which is mixed in with background percussion and all kinds of other ambient sounds, percolates with infectious rhythms and melodies that never seem to stop.
Camus' film is a musical, which is an inherently unreal format. Even so, it is kind of hard to shake off a fundamental aspect of the film: an up-tempo musical journey through the slums of Brazil? A few decades of Brazilian features and documentaries, many of which boast an aggressive approach in portraying the reality of the favelas, makes this story seem quaint and even naive. The tragic third act in which Orpheus descends to the underworld -- Rio de Jainero as Hades -- is the closest this film ever actually comes close to portraying any kind of reality. Even then, it operates more on an allegorical level and the coda returns Black Orpheus to the same favela fantasy land in which that it began.
Blu-Ray presentation matches Criterion's usual high standards. The
restored transfer, which is flawless, is presented in the 1.33:1 aspect
ratio with the usual uncompressed mono soundtrack. Viewers have the
option of Portuguese language audio with English subtitles or an English
dub. The extras are really strong. The best one is a featurette called Black Orpheus and That Bossa Nova Sound! This
short film discusses how the music came into existence, its importance
within the context of the film, and its influence on jazz musicians like
Miles Davis and Stan Getz. In another extra called Revisiting Black Orpheus,
film historian Robert Stam gives a critical look at the film with a
focus on its representation of Brazil. Another quality extra is Looking for Black Orpheus, which
looks to actors and crew for their thoughts about working on the film. A
color booklet containing an essay by Michael Atkinson rounds out the