Black Orpheus, Marcel Camus’ 1959 magnum opus, opens with foreshadowing: Everything is happy: children are dancing, kites are flying, and then that kite flies away. The happiness flies away. It sets the tone so perfectly for the rest of the film; everyone dances and laughs, and eventually that happiness flies away.
Black Orpheus is a retelling of the greek myth of Orpheus set in Rio de Janeiro. Set during carnival, it’s about Orpheus (Breno Mello) falling in love with Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) while she is on the run from Death. While it’s a simple story, one that has been told time and time again, Rio de Janeiro truly makes this film work.
The most notable thing about Black Orpheus is the life it captures so well. Instead of emphasizing the poverty of these favelas, the film decides to make these people be happy, dance around, and be a tight-knit community during the carnival that is going on. The film almost always has a light drumming going in the background, showing the life that is part of these peoples lives, despite their economic conditions. Whip pans and quick camera movements make the film feel fast and add more to the life. And despite the tragedy present in the story, there’s a sense of humor throughout the film.
This is juxtaposed when Death makes his appearance. The appearance is always interesting as well; Death moves like a dancer, with elegance and grace. There is no sense of Death's gender, either. When we're away from the dancing and life, Death cancels out that light drumming in the background. And, most surprisingly, Black Orpheus continues to be relevant by the police present at the carnival being on death's side. They break up the life of the party, they block people from helping Eurydice escape from death, and they reflect the modern-day views people have about cops. It was certainly something I was not expecting when watching the film, but it was made in 1959, a time when the police were hated just as much as they can be now.
Another astonishingly different thing Black Orpheus does is have the story the film is adapting, the greek myth of Orpheus, be acknowledged in the film. It actually exists and these people are aware that it does. It’s why Mira is so resentful towards Eurydice; people think Orpheus and Eurydice belong together because they’re part of the tale. Orpheus literally says “There was an Orpheus before me. And one may come after I’m gone.” It gives the film a feeling of timelessness, that throughout life there will always be an Orpheus and Eurydice who will love each other and whose tale will end tragically. (By the way, the actual romance between Orpheus and Eurydice is tender and yet always ends up avoiding being cliche; you never even see them kiss.) And yet the film introduces these characters to us before it fits the characters into the adaptational nature of the film so the story feels original.
The film is magnificent visually as well; the already mentioned beautiful Rio gives the film a background that looks like a painting. The colors employed include neon yellows and cool blues for scenes of life, as well as blood reds and pitch blacks for scenes involving death. The visually striking nature adds quite a lot to the juxtaposition of life and death.
The ending of Black Orpheus is a simple one, yet it has a transcendent beauty. Two children watch the sunrise and one asks the other to help the sun rise like Orpheus does, with his beautiful music. He starts to figure it out, the sun rises while a girl watches, and then they all dance. Orpheus says “There was an Orpheus before me. And one may come after I’m gone,” and he has come. This kid is the new Orpheus. He makes the sun rise, and while the sun may eventually set, there will always be an Orpheus to bring it up. It ends on life, a common occurrence in the film.
The version of Black Orpheus I watched had camera flickers, an odd lip-syncing issue, and yet I never cared. It’s a timeless film, one which stays relevant to this day. It’s truly a perfect film, one which I could imagine watching many times again.