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Black Orpheus
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by Jay Seaver

"A classic story retold in a vibrant location."
4 stars

The idea of a setting being an integral part of a story, to the point where it's called a character in the movie, is particularly apt where "Black Orpheus" is concerned. The Orpheus myth, like so many, can be removed form its setting and be relevant to anyone; that's what myths are for. It can be related in a few seconds, so by transplanting it to Rio de Janeiro, and portraying Rio so vividly, filmmaker Marcel Camus is not just retelling a classic, but using it as a pretext to explore.

After all, everybody knows the story of Orpheus, here Orfeo, a streetcar conductor with a passion for the guitar played by soccer star Breno Mello. When he applies for a marriage license, the clerk says "this must be Eurydice, because everyone knows that Orpheus loves Eurydice". The thing is, Orfeo was with Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), who is a bit on the jealous side. Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) has just arrived to visit her cousin Serafina (Lea Garcia). Serafina lives in Orfeo's neighborhood, and it's not long before they're formally introduced. But Mira isn't the only obstacle between them; Eurydice is fleeing a death-masked stalker.

The story takes place in the days leading up to Carnival, which gives the characters an excellent opportunity to participate in intrigues involving disguise: As much fun as they are in classical theater and literature, masked balls are far from common these days. Carnival, with its elaborate costumes, throngs of people, and masks which cover the whole face, offers a chance to use this plot device in a modern setting without it seeming odd. It also makes the film as stunning as Carnival itself, as every square inch of the big screen fills with a riot of colorful clothing, dancers parade in awesome syncopation, and joyous calypso plays on the soundtrack. It would be a complete showstopper, if it weren't half the reason to have the show in the first place.

It's not just by showing Carnival that Camus immerses us in Rio. The entire film is shot on location, and not always in the clean, touristy areas. Ofeo and Serafina live in a hillside shantytown with stray animals wandering in and out. There's trash strewn everywhere, with it becoming a natural part of the landscape. The two kids who follow Orfeo around wear the same ripped clothes throughout the entire film. We don't dwell on poverty, though, since we're given nothing to place them in another context; the characters get by, what they want is generally within reach, they're planning an elaborate celebration, and even wealthy Mira seems familiar with pawn shops. It's not just the vibrant, beautiful parts of Rio we see, though - the bureaucratic offices, morgue, and spooky spirituals that represent the underworld in the last act are chillingly atmospheric.

Much as the film is shot on real locations, it also features a cast of non-professional locals - or at least, people who started acting with this movie. Mello gives Orfeo a roguish charm; the man has obviously been free with his attentions to the fair sex, and he's pretty quick to shift his attention from the woman he allegedly wishes to marry, often finding her a nuisance. But he remains likeable; it's like he's been able to coast and now he's figuring out how to be serious. Miss Dawn is perfectly sweet as Eurydice; we initially see her amazed at the big city and we're as charmed as we were by Mello; it makes them a good pair. Lourdes de Oliveira drips sex as Mira, and not entirely because of her skintight outfits; she's primal, direct and not someone you'd want to cross. Lea Garcia is arguably the glue that holds the film together; her Serafina is the common point of reference for all the other characters and she not only has to have all the mechanics of plot bounce off her, but gets her own comic story with a soldier boyfriend just in town for the weekend. None of them give perfect, polished performances - we occasionally see the effort to recite memorized lines, let alone create the illusion that they arise naturally - but we get the feeling, and have a handle on the characters.

The story is mythic, both in source material and in execution. Orfeo doesn't have a literal underworld to search, but characters are aware of the myth being re-enacted. Indeed, toward the end, there's references to this being a cyclic process, with Orfeo not being the first Orpheus and an implication that others will follow him. That Camus was able to make that point while also handling what must have been a tremendously difficult shoot, with amateur actors and huge crowd scenes, is no small accomplishment.

"Black Orpheus" may not be the best-ever retelling of the Orpheus myth, but it's as beautiful and charming as any. As it stands, it's worth seeing just as a travel movie; it's a delightful capsule time capsule of Rio in the late 1950s and the joyful madness of Carnival. That there's a fine narrative to go along with it is almost a bonus.

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originally posted: 06/01/06 00:45:55
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2006 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/02/06 San Lamar pretty dang good 4 stars
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