Wednesday 6 February 2013

1,001 Films: "Black Orpheus" (1959)

Signs of life in Brazil. Black Orpheus, a musical drama from director Marcel Camus (no relation), essentially does what Hollywood had done in turning Carmen into Carmen Jones by introducing a romantic myth to the reality of the streets - here, the favelas of Rio as they were in the late 1950s. A streetcar driver who just happens to be called Orpheus (Breno Mello) and a country girl who just happens to be called Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) just so happen to run into one another - and realise they're meant for each other - at carnival, after which Orpheus just so happens to be getting married to somebody else. Death - or a guy who just so happens to be wearing a death mask - is waiting in the wings; the underworld (in a touch Orson Welles, soon to film Kafka, surely appreciated) becomes a drab bureaucracy where nobody thinks of or feels like dancing. 

For all the contrivance required in making legend relevant to a late 50s audience, Camus' film still looks and sounds immensely fresh today, an explosion of colour and sound emerging from the back end of a generally austere, if not totally monochrome, decade. The unruly dancing, wholly unable to be choreographed or contained within the frame, serves to represent less a particular character or storyline (as it had been in the MGM musicals) than an entire nation: Camus was alerting the rest of the world to a party it had otherwise been missing.

Shorn of Cocteau's more arcane symbolism (though Orpheus retains a stringed instrument: a guitar, which seems acceptable, given the musical milieu), Black Orpheus returns the legend to people, feelings, appetites. It's a film entirely at home in its own skin, and one's abiding memory of it, beyond the lush greens and cerulean blues of its scenery, is of bare feet and heaving, passion-filled breasts. (Leading lady Dawn is the beneficiary of some of the sexiest close-ups the cinema had bestowed upon an actress up to that point.) When it won the Palme d'Or, it marked the start of a breakthrough decade for Brazilian cinema internationally: if it didn't yet have the radical politics - Orpheus and Eurydice take to the streets to dance, and not to express dissent - you can see the feverish heat and restless energy leaking into the Third Cinema of Glauber Rocha and others.

Black Orpheus is available on DVD through Second Sight.


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