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Black Orpheus (Blu-ray Review)

23 Aug, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
In Portuguese with English subtitles.
Stars Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn.

As the late-decade awards magnet that planted an international bossa nova seed, writer-director Marcel Camus’ panoply of pigmented costuming (against an equally kinetic beat) remains something close to a one-of-a-kind. Certainly, it was in terms of the filmmaker, whose other movies didn’t amount to much given all the vitality here.

To the Greek Orphee-Eurydice legend (see also Criterion’s release of Jean Cocteau’s 1950 Orpheus), were added two impossibly good-looking leads: Brazilian native Breno Mello and American Marpessa Dawn (in real life, a dancer raised on a farm outside of Pittsburgh). Neither ended up making that many movies, but thanks to the kind of sleuthing that makes IMDb.com such an indispensable reference source, the website tells us that both married twice in real life, had five children each and died 41 days apart last year. Well, it beats what their characters go through in the film.

As film scholar Robert Stam points out in an excellent supplement, this is not an Brazilian film but a French one whose point of view or emphasis is one a native filmmaker probably wouldn’t have taken (e.g. the characters’ overriding blackness). This is important because Black Orpheus was one of the first movies about blacks to turn on white audiences, winning the Golden Palm at Cannes, the Oscar for best foreign-language film and a Golden Globe for the same. (Though the last citation was in conjunction with four other features; let no one say the Globes weren’t capable of hedging a bet or five.)

Liberally adapted from a Vinicius de Moraes play called Orfeo do Carnaval, the movie’s male protagonist (Mello) is a Rio de Janeiro streetcar conductor with guitar-playing aspirations. Its Eurydice (Dawn) is a visitor at carnival time — an event that consumes a year of prep because it offers the one brief annual respite from squalor that (rightly or wrongly) the movie doesn’t make its concern. As one interviewee notes in the extras, you don’t see mosquitoes or lousy sewers here, though certainly, it’s obvious that the housing here is humble.

Instead, the emphasis is on duds — gold and soothing blues are two favorite motifs — and on the groundbreaking Luiz Bonfa/Antonio Carlos Jobim music that generated a soundtrack LP popular to this day and one without which there might not have been the subsequent Getz/Gilberto classic album, Jobim’s durable recordings with Frank Sinatra and, lest we forget, Eydie Gorme’s No. 7 Billboard smash Blame It on the Bossa Nova (aka “the Dance of Love”).

The photogenic actors help, too, and not just the leads: the children are attractive (contributing to a killer final scene) and even the actress who plays Orfeo’s harridan of a girlfriend Mira (fortunately, the character has a short attention span) is stunner Lourdes de Oliveira. For a couple days, the entire cast is literally marching down hills, streets and even on a boat to a mix of strings and percussion — though, beware: memorable footage of hangovers and haul-aways in paddy wagons is on the horizon. Even the broken-down guy who ill advisedly issues Orfeo and Mira a marriage license is in the festive spirit, cracking corny jokes. This is a milieu in which even an insurance actuary would want to bop out.

Until the movie goes serious at the end with a homicidal romantic stalker and a tragic wrap, it’s almost constantly rhythmic — and photographed in colors that surpass (thank you again, Criterion remastering) what inferior Eastman Color was normally capable of rendering. Film historian Danny Peary has said that this is a movie that women prefer more than men, though (momentarily overlooking its artistic vulnerability on a certain socio-political-economic level), one would have to be quite a grouch not to respond with glee.

Criterion has provided a ton of extras not on its original 1999 DVD about the movie’s history and influence, including a full-length documentary. I especially liked seeing personable Gary Giddins, someone who obviously knows his music but also knows his movies, having delivered mounds of insight on Criterion’s March DVD of Make Way for Tomorrow — a very different kind of film. (Though come to think, the ultimate emotional effects of both aren’t all that opposed.) DVD producers ought to employ Giddins as much as possible and not just because he’s so good.  Doing so might give him the liberty to finish Vol. 2 of his definitive Bing Crosby biography, especially given that Vol. 1 was among the most praised bios of the entire 2000s.

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