Director: Marcel Camus
Production: Dispatfilm (Paris), Gemma Cinematografica (Rome), and Tupan; Eastmancolor, 35mm, Cinemascope; running time: 103 minutes, some sources list 106 minutes. Released 1958. Filmed in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival in both 1957 and 1958, footage with actors shot September-December 1958.
Producer: Sacha Gordine; screenplay: Vinicius de Moraes, adapted by Jacques Viot and Marcel Camus from the play Orfeu da Conceição by Vinicius de Moraes; photography: Jean Bourgoin; sound: Lenhart; music: Luis Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Cast : Brenno Melio (Orphée); Marapessa Dawn (Eurídice); Ademar da Silva (Death); Lourdes de Oliveria (Mira); Lee Garcia (Serafina).
Awards: Cannes Film Festival, Palme d'Or, 1959; Oscar for Best Foreign Film, 1959.
de Moraes, Vinicius, Orfeu da Conceição, Rio de Janeiro, 1960.
Armes, Roy, French Film, New York, 1970
Sadoul, Georges, "Notes on a New Generation," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer-Autumn 1959.
Weber, Eugen, "An Escapist Realism," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1959.
Alpert, Hollis, "New Wave: Orpheus in Rio," in Saturday Review (New York), 19 December 1959.
"Orpheus Distending," in Time (New York), 19 September 1960.
Trémois, Claude-Marie, "Comment Camus a tourné Orfeu Negro," in Nouveaux Films Français (Paris), no. 474, 1960.
Shipman, David, in Films and Filming (London), October 1983.
* * *
By transplanting the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to the boisterous, colorful atmosphere of Brazil's Carnival, Marcel Camus rejuvenates it and infuses its universal themes with a vibrant particularity born of its interweavings with Vodoun and other Brazilian traditions.
Film anthologies routinely report that Orfeu negro is based on Orfeu da Conceiçao, a play written two years earlier by the Brazilian Vinicius de Moraes. Actually there is only a slight correspondence between the two; the play follows the original myth far more closely. Although Camus borrows two principal elements from the play— Mira as the other love interest and an avenging Maenad, and a black woman as the voice of Eurídice after death—he translates these elements as freely as those borrowed from the original myth, other Greek legends, and Brazilian customs.
The principal motif in the film is that of Orfeu as a sun god, and the film itself as a modern solar myth. In an opening scene, a boy flies a kite that looks like a sun, shouting to Serafina to "look at the sun!" Umbrellas (necessary only when there is no sun) are hung rapidly, one by one, by Orfeu's guitar in a pawnshop. Orfeu tells the boy, Benedetto, that he makes the sun rise, which is the principal task of a solar god; the morning after Orfeu first sleeps with Eurídice, Benedetto and a friend leave Orfeu's guitar by the door so that he'll remember to make the sun rise; the boys themselves make it rise the next day when Orfeu dies before daybreak. Orfeu's songs reflect solar themes: "Morning when the sun rises . . . come and place tenderly your pearls of dew on nature in bloom," as well as "Happiness lasts a day," a day being the birth-death-rebirth cycle of a sun god. At the rehearsal for the upcoming dance, Benedetto tells Eurídice that Orfeu is the sun god and his fiancée Mira is the Queen of the Day: "Look, the sun will kiss the day." Orfeu's costume for Carnival is that of a golden warrior with a gold foil sun as his shield. Finally, at Carnival a number of dancers carry sun-like wands. Other motifs—Eurídice's scarf of the constellations ("houses of Heaven") and the float of the stars, moon, and the planets that passes Orfeu after Eurídice's death— reinforce the astral themes.
The film also relates more specifically to the Orphic myth. Though he plays a more modern stringed instrument, Orfeu, like Orpheus before him, is a musician. When he discovers the name of his newfound goddess—Eurídice—he tells her, "I have loved you a thousand years." Eurídice flees from Death just as Eurydice fled from Aristaeus, a shepherd intent on seducing her. While fleeing, she is electrocuted by a live wire she has seized in panic, just as Eurydice was poisoned by a viper she trod upon in her haste. After Eurídice's death, Orfeu descends to the underworld as did Orpheus. Indeed, the overhead shot of him descending a long, dark spiralling staircase, flowing red at its base, is one of the eeriest moments in the film (the final encounter with Death being the other). A dog named Cereberus guards the gate of a house where a Vodoun ceremony is being held, Orfeu's destination. Just as Orpheus had to sing to animate the shades of the underworld, so does Orfeu's guide urge him, once they are inside: "Call her. She'll come. Call her, Orfeu . . . Sing to her." (It is here, incidentally, that Greek myth and Brazilian religion neatly coincide; in Vodoun the appropriate gods are expected to appear when devotees summon them by songs in their honor.) As in the original myth, Orfeu is warned not to look behind him when he is retrieving Eurídice. But when he hears her voice—"Do not turn around, Orfeu. You'll lose me forever"—he is desperate to see her and, in turning, loses her as did Orpheus before him. Finally, he is killed by a vengeful and jealous woman, just as Orpheus was killed by the Maenads.
Other elements from Greek mythology are liberally employed. The principal characters live on an Olympian mountain. A blind balloon man/guide appears at the beginning of the film to give Eurídice directions: "I know the way without sight." Hermes, who functions, appropriately, as a messenger tells Eurídice the way to Serafina's and offers her sanctuary when she is threatened. He then goes to find Orfeu, tells Orfeu of Eurídice's death, and finally discovers Orfeu collapsed on the street, giving him the necessary papers to claim Eurídice's body.
It is to Camus's credit that the incorporation of all these mythic elements is rarely heavy-handed. (Only the intermittent appearance of Death seems strained, perhaps because it has no Brazilian context) This is largely due to his lively, detailed depiction of local custom— the opening scenes of women carrying cans on their heads and shopping, the commotion of the pawnshop, the rustic huts of Orfeu and Serafina, the wild and colorful dancing and music of Carnival, and the scenes of Brazilian bureaucracy. The spontaneity is enhanced by Camus's use of native Brazilian actors, many not professionals.
The vivid cinematography of Jean Bourgoin also helps to enliven the mythic themes. The day/night dichotomy is handled brilliantly— spectacular technicolor sunrises and glorious panoramas of Rio in the daylight contrast with the dimly-lit scenes of night, particularly in the encounters with Death which heighten the sense of impending doom. The scene at the tram depot is particularly frightening: we see Death, large and ominous in the foreground. Eurídice runs through the dark, and we hear more clearly than we see what is happening—Eurídice's screams of "No!" and "Orfeu!," the creepy hum of electricity, the stacatto sound of Eurídice's high heels in flight. Such darkness is appropriate to night and it is only when Orfeu tries to turn night into day, by throwing the electric switch, that Eurídice dies.
Orfeu negro is an effective translation of an ancient Greek myth to a modern Brazilian love story. The film was an instant commercial success worldwide and won the Palme d'Or at Cannes.