Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Black Orpheus (1959), Dir: Marcel Camus

Black Orpheus, a modern adaptation of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, is certainly a lovely film. The shots are exquisitely framed and the costuming is phenomenal. Rio slums never looked so good.

Eurydice makes her initial entrance. Clearly she's meant to be a contrast for Mira. Innocent and pure. Her hair is youthfully bound and her neckline chaste. I'll admit to being in love with the dress.

Orpheus quickly tosses Mira aside for good girl Eurydice. This is clearly the bad girl dress Mira wore to pick up the marriage license with Orpheus. Stunning:

The styling of the Death character is wonderful and the scene where Death chases down Eurydice is as taut and suspenseful as any Hitchcock movie. Eurydice's terror is palpable as she weaves between trains in the trolley station while attempting to escape him.

Unfortunately, director Marcel Camus devotes a lot more time to scenery than characterization. Orpheus's speech as he carries Eurydice's body back to his home is absolutely beautiful and would have had me in tears but for the fact that the characters were so shallowly drawn that even by the end of the movie I had only a mild attachment to them. If you're quite familiar with Orpheus myth, generally, you certainly will bring that to the movie, but explanations for character motivations are lacking here.

This is the first Marcel Camus film I've seen. Regarding a film he made nearly a decade after Black Orpheus imdb states: "Un été sauvage (1970) was generally recognized as an inauthentic and superficial evocation of young people on vacation in Saint-Tropez." Clearly I've not seen the other movie, but I'm sort of surprised Sauvage is the only one labeled inauthentic. I appreciate the film takes place during Carnival and is a slice of life of sorts, but (1) black people living in slums, (2) dancing nonstop (pretty much from the start of the film . . . samba music plays a big role here) and

(3) eating watermelon. Not to mention that Orpheus was able to communicate with Eurydice after her death by attending what appeared to be a spiritual ceremony with black women speaking in tongues.

I find it amusing that Netflix predicted I'd rate this film a 4.5. In theory, it's right up my ally, but as with all older movies you never really know when you're going to stumble across one that sort of offends you as much, or more, than it pleases you. In Black Orpheus, the virgin/whore dichotomy would have sent me muttering all on it's own. After all, we're meant to think Eurydice is a good match for playboy Orpheus because we're meant to view Mira as a trashy, bad choice. Add in a shallowly drawn black culture and I didn't find this film nearly half as endearing as I could have. Again, I can't say enough good things about the cinematography, costuming, acting and music, but the character development is poor and modern filmgoers should probably be viewing this with a more critical eye.

Rating: 6/10

Length: 107 min.

Genre: Foreign/Drama/Romance

1 comment:

  1. This blog is quite wonderful. I appreciate the attention and detail you put into you film and book analyses.

    As far as Black Orpheus's inauthenticity, while I understand your reaction to some of the depictions of Afro-Brazilian life, much of what is shown in the film is quite authentic. Choosing to set the film in the "slums" is simply a matter of choice; the non-stop dancing, I believe, is just cahracteristic of Carnival (I haven't been to the Brazilian fectival, but I have been to the Trinidadian Carnival, and let me tell you... it's pretty much a national holiday; everything's closed down, and there is certainly non-stop music and dancing); and the watermelon scene, while certainly a touchy subject for black Americans, does not have the same stigma in either Brazil or (Camus's) France.

    I agree wholeheartedly about your assessment of the lack of characterization. Unfortunately, Camus seemed to be preoccupied with characterizing the landscape and culture instead of the actual people within the film.

    Great read! Looking forward to more of your critiques.