Monday, May 9, 2011

Black Orpheus (1959) - #48

There was an Orpheus before me, and there may be another after I'm gone, but for now I'm the boss.

For all the fond appreciation that Black Orpheus has earned from a generation of fans, thanks to its memorable whirlwind of song, dance, color and scenery, it deserves more credit than it seems to be getting nowadays as a pivotal breakthrough that opened many doors for future filmmakers. Pull this film off the shelf to watch at random and there's a good chance you'll find yourself impressed, maybe even delighted, by the joyous explosion of music, costumes and breathtaking vistas in the mountains overlooking the gorgeous topography of Rio de Janeiro. Even by modern standards, it's quite a spectacle. But you'll probably be even more amazed as I was if you view Black Orpheus alongside even the most impressively innovative art house films of its era, classics like The 400 Blows and Hiroshima mon amour, or South Pacific, Hollywood's 1958 version of an eye-popping Technicolor musical set in the tropics. Set in that context, the incredible freshness, vitality and timelessness of Black Orpheus' mythic adaptation helps to approximate the sense of revelation that propelled this film to a surprising Palme d'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival that year, best foreign film awards at the Oscars and Golden Globes in 1960 and triggered a musical revolution as it spread the bossa nova sound across the globe soon thereafter.

Fifty years later, the popular take on Black Orpheus generally emphasizes the memorable score, vibrant  Carnival dance sequences and the indisputable charms of a very attractive cast, while more wary and skeptical critics, taking their cue from the film's early detractors (including some of the leading lights of the Nouvelle Vague), point out the socio-political compromises, glamorizations of poverty and arguably exploitive racial and ethnic aspects of director Marcel Camus' career highlight. Both ardent fans and the doubters make points worth considering, and I can easily relate to that initial feeling of resistance that counter-cultural insiders feel when something new from within their ranks finds a surprisingly broad and positive reception while popular taste simultaneously turns up its nose at other, more confrontational or radical breakthroughs. There's usually some kind of rot lurking within that makes a work of art appealing to the vulgar horde, so the thinking goes, and if Black Orpheus has an Achilles heel (to mix my mythological metaphors) it can easily be traced to its simplified and sanitized portrayal of happy-go-lucky dark-skinned people just dancing and making merry, oblivious to the systemic corruption and injustice that keeps them living in squalid run-down shacks.

Given the lack of awareness regarding the "real Brazil" at that time, I can't fault Camus for sparing viewers full-fledged culture shock, and in any case, he had his own story to tell, his own personal impressions of the Carnival phenomenon that he wanted to convey. In any case, dwelling too long on that set of controversies doesn't really do much to address the problem at hand. It does, however, put us at risk of missing the aesthetic beauty of what Camus accomplished. His stroke of genius, which from what I've read he never came very close to replicating again in a career spent largely in French domestic television, was to apply a familiar and readily adaptable Greek myth that made this alluring but unfamiliar setting more accessible to viewers unaccustomed to having so much sheer exuberant blackness in their entertainment diet. But let's face it, the blackness of Black Orpheus, both then and now, is a major key of the appeal that it holds - that blend of alarming sensuality and compelling rhythms, and even the touch of wild abandon and danger that comes through, especially in the macumbe ceremony toward the end.

The mythic transference is not all that different, in essence, from what the Coen Brothers did when they used the Odyssey as a plot structure for O Brother Where Art Thou?, even though the latter film was more ingratiatingly self-conscious in drawing up its parallelisms with the ancient epic. Because Camus didn't overstate the point, the mythic elements function more as a light source of amusement than a laborious exercise in trying to figure out who represents what, with character names drawn straight from the Greek stories and roughed-in updates of the classical pagan setting transposed into a modern day slum and the metropolis to which it was attached.  And because he was able to draw such an appealing and charismatic cast together, consisting of Brazilian locals except for the radiantly beautiful American actress Marpessa Dawn who played Eurydice, those viewers who aren't all that clear on the Orphic mythology don't really have to concern themselves with the details. They can just look at the seductively appealing faces and bodies that speak so much louder than words anyway.

To those who find fault in Black Orpheus for not taking a more documentary realistic approach to depicting life in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, I say that it's a moot point by now. There's enough spontaneous kinetic energy bursting across the screen to convince me that in many instances, Camus merely turning his cast and all those extras loose, just pointing the camera where the action was. Sure, there's a measure of choreography at work here, with an apparent sequence of dancers stepping forward for their solo moments, but I seriously had the feeling that they'd be moving just the same even if the camera wasn't rolling. There's plenty of information on last year's Criterion DVD and Blu-ray reissues to make plain the plight of Brazil's urban poor, a situation that's only gotten worse over the subsequent decades, according to those who live there and can speak with some authority.

As indelible as the music and movement is though, what won my affection for Black Orpheus, and will bring me back for many happy return visits in the future, is that durable mythic core. The cyclical story line, with its thread of inevitable tragedy hovering over a sweetly naive and simple romance, evokes a deeply felt longing we all have, of finding a lover with whom we share a connection that is timeless and transcendent. Indeed, for all the bombast and audio-visual pyrotechnics that unfold over the course of the film's 100 minute journey to the underworld and back again, the nearly wordless interlude between Orfeu and Euridyce near the middle of the film is indeed, my very favorite scene. It starts shortly after the 3:00 minute mark in this clip:

Those moments of tranquil serenity, and the promise of eternal renewal in the dance of the children at the end, serves to reinforce the dignity and the divinity inherent in any truly loving relationship, regardless of the economic or cultural advantages we normally regard as prerequisites to meaningful (even if short-lived) happiness.

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