One of my favorite movies turns fifty this year, and that's as good an excuse as any to make it an object of public affection here on R:M:B. Black Orpheus is the 1959 re-telling of the Greek tragedy Orpheus and Eurydice, set against the festive backdrop of Rio de Janeiro's Carnaval. I can't remember how or why I first saw it, but I know I was instantly hooked by Jean Cocteau's Orphic Trilogy when a friend made me watch it years ago as part of her college thesis work. That experience alone may be what pushed me to load up my own academic curriculum with as many film classes as possible, and it's an interest I've tried to stay connected to in later life. (And I've got the Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren DVDs to prove it, bub.)
Black Orpheus is arguably among the most visually stunning films ever made. The colors of Carnaval literally jump out of the screen in a style that is definitively enhanced by a bossa nova soundtrack that David Ehrenstein describes as "eruptive, convulsive, [and] infectious". Indeed, the manic drumming of Carnaval -- which explodes out of the gate during the opening title sequence -- remains audible at some level almost throughout the film's entire duration. In its most frantic moments, this percussive presence is mixed to nearly in-the-red levels, adding an additional layer of urgency to Death's thematic pursuit of Eurydice. Elsewhere, during Black Orpheus' more somber scenes, it maintains its residence as an important component of the story, though in such instances, it is appropriately deployed as less of an aural centerpiece.
Even if you don't know the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice (but really, didn't everyone have a copy of The Big Book of Greek Mythology when they were kids?), this is a completely appropriate version to treat as a starting point. Symbolic nods to the original tale are artfully interwoven into the narrative, and a single viewing will likely inspire you to research the original Greek legend on your own. Committed fans who re-visit the film repeatedly are rewarded with the careful considerations that director Marcel Camus took in sculpting this modernized version. His efforts were duly noted in their own time, as the film handily took the Palme d'Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, as well as the 1960 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. An expected DVD edition was released by Criterion in 1999, which is still readily available for sale and via Netflix.
The soundtrack (by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa) is an artifact that's also well worth tracking down. Interestingly, it seems to have been more of a phenomenon than the actual film was, at least in America, where the bossa nova sound fruitfully intermingled with jazz during the apex of its popularity (1958-63, so sayeth Wikipedia.) As a result, used vinyl copies are today a fairly ubiquitous presence in the soundtrack sections of most decent record stores. I think I paid ten bucks for mine, though I've seen them go for as little as two. Alternately, Amazon's got it available in both physical format and as an MP3 download.
For further reading, I'd strongly recommend Lawrence Russell's Culture Court article on Black Orpheus. To be completely fair, it's something of a head-spinning treatise that's clearly geared towards film geeks, but it makes compelling observations vis-à-vis the film's nods to voodoo, and does so in a way that casual observers can definitely glean insight from.
On a more immediately relevant tip, no less a man than Barack Obama has recently sought to add to the discussion of Black Orpheus. In his "Dreams from my Father" autobiography, he notes that his (white) mother was an avowed fan of the film, and he describes how she had once characterized it as "the most beautiful thing [she'd] ever seen." But after viewing it for himself in 1983, Obama went on to admonish the film for what he interpreted as a needless exoticism being ascribed to the all-black cast. Writing in The Guardian earlier this month, Peter Bradshaw came to the film's defense and made a number of astute observations regarding its ongoing cultural relevance. However, with consideration given to the President's remarks, he also comments on what he calls "a loss of liberal innocence about racial difference." It's a great read about a great film, but assuming you're still not convinced, here's a spoiler-free excerpt that gracefully demonstrates the romance, comedy, frenzied momentum, and poetic sadness of Black Orpheus.
On a final note of poignancy, I just learned that the actors who portrayed Black Orpheus' doomed lovers -- Breno Mello as the heroic Orpheus, and Marpessa Dawn as the breathtakingly beautiful Eurydice -- both died within weeks of one another during the summer of 2008. In spite of their exemplary performances and the success of the film, neither were particularly prolific in the years that followed. You can read their respective New York Times obituaries here and here.