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Black Orpheus

Black Orpheus(1959)

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teaser Black Orpheus (1959)


The Orpheus and Eurydice myth of ancient Greece is set against the colorful backdrop of Rio de Janeiro's Carnival in this retelling of the famous story. Orfeo is a trolley car conductor engaged to the fiery and demanding Mira. However, when Orfeo meets beautiful country girl Eurydice, he is captivated by her gentle sweetness and falls instantly in love. Before they can be together, Orfeo must deal with his fiance's vengeful jealousy as Eurydice tries to escape a mysterious man dressed as "Death" who wants to kill her. When things take a tragic turn, Orfeo must embark on a mystical journey to the underworld.

Director: Marcel Camus
Producer: Sacha Gordine
Screenplay: Jacques Viot, Camus
Based on the play Orfeu da Conceicao by Vinicius de Moraes
Cinematography: Jean Bourgoin
Editing: Andree Feix
Music Composer: Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonfa
Cast: Breno Mello (Orfeo), Marpessa Dawn (Eurydice), Lourdes de Oliveira (Mira), Lea Garcia (Serafina), Ademar Da Silva (Death), Alexandro Constantino (Hermes), Waldemar De Souza (Chico), Jorge Dos Santos (Benedito), Aurino Cassiano (Zeca).

Why BLACK ORPHEUS is Essential

Black Orpheus was one of the most successful international films of its time. It won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film of 1959. Explosive, colorful, exuberant, and touchingly tragic, this film as a modern retelling of a classical Greek myth is one of the freshest and most original modern films ever made.

Black Orpheus boasts some of the most beautifully photographed color images in modern cinema. With his location photography, cinematographer Jean Bourgoin uniquely captured the vibrant colors of the exotic costumes and scenery of Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. New York Herald Tribune writer Paul Beckley called it "the most sensuous use of color I have ever seen on is not so much dressed in color as created out of color."

The exuberant samba music for Black Orpheus composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa had a huge impact on audiences and musicians outside of Brazil. The soundtrack was a bestselling album, and it launched an international fascination with bossa nova music, which still enjoys popularity to this day.

by Andrea Passafiume

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teaser Black Orpheus (1959)

Even with all of its international acclaim, Black Orpheus still generated some criticism. There were those who felt that the film was more a tourist's perspective on Brazil and its people and lacked authenticity. Some felt that Camus romanticized the poverty-ridden lives of the characters and dressed the dismal conditions of the favelas (slums) in lush cinematography. Contemporary Brazilian filmmaker Carlos Diegues, who made an updated version of Black Orpheus called Orfeu in 1999, said, "Black Orpheus is not an exploitative film. You can see that it was made with real affection and enthusiasm. Camus fell in love with Rio and its culture, but he made a superficial film about something he didn't really understand. It's as if I were to go to France to make a movie about Joan of Arc. That's not to say I don't know anything about her. But there are others in France who know much more than I could ever hope to learn."

Director Marcel Camus made several more films throughout the course of his career, but none ever matched the success of Black Orpheus. The film has endured as Camus' one great opus that remains in the public consciousness as new generations continue to discover it long after his death in 1982.

All of the actors in Black Orpheus were non-professional Brazilians. The one exception was Marpessa Dawn, who played Eurydice. She was an American dancer from Pittsburgh.

Black Orpheus was based on the play Orfeu da Conceio by Vinicius des Moraes, itself an adaptation of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Actor Breno Mello, who played Orpheus in the film, made his living as a soccer player before director Marcel Camus tapped him to star in Black Orpheus.

Mello and Marpessa Dawn, who played Eurydice, died a mere 41 days apart in 2008.

Dawn was briefly married to Black Orpheus director Marcel Camus.

Filmmaker and actor Mario Van Peebles cites Black Orpheus as a major influence on his career. "My father made the first Black Power film in 1971," he said. "But more than a decade earlier, you have Orfeu Negro, which showed people of color with three-dimensional humanity. It didn't take on race issues, and this was revolutionary. In America, we were making films that were very conscious of class and race and struggle. The film ignores the whole race question. It shows people having a self-sufficient life that doesn't depend on a white person giving them their rights. My goodness, what a wonderful piece of cinema. I first saw it as a kid and it made quite an impression-so lush and colorful and rich. It shaped my vision and still holds up."

In President Barack Obama's memoir Dreams from My Father he mentions that Black Orpheus was a particular favorite film of his mother, which he learned one summer when she visited him in New York. "One evening, while thumbing through The Village Voice," wrote Obama, "my mother's eyes lit on an advertisement for a movie, Black Orpheus, that was showing downtown. My mother insisted that we go see it that night; she said that it was the first foreign film she had ever seen." She later told him that she had been 16-years-old at the time and had felt like a real adult when she had first seen it. "I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen," she told her son, the future president. Obama wasn't as impressed as his mother and wanted to leave halfway through the film. When he turned to his mother in the theater, he could see that she wanted to stay and finish watching. "...her face, lit by the blue glow of the screen, was set in a wistful gaze," said Obama. "At that moment, I felt as if I were being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth. I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad's dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different."

When Black Orpheus opened in 1959, Marcel Camus was hailed for his poetic and powerfully original interpretation of the ancient story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The film generated international acclaim, and audiences all over the world responded to the fresh, riveting and visually stunning new film. It was awarded the top prize-the Golden Palm-at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film.

Compiled by Andrea Passafiume

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teaser Black Orpheus (1959)

The roots of Black Orpheus go all the way back to Greek mythology. In the original story, Orpheus and Eurydice are deeply in love. On the day of their wedding, however, Eurydice steps on a poisonous snake and dies. Devastated, Orpheus follows her into the underworld where he attempts to persuade the King of Hades to allow Eurydice to return to the land of the living with him. The King is moved by Orpheus' exquisite music of longing and love and allows Orpheus to lead Eurydice out of the underworld and back to the land of the living - on one condition: he must not look back at Eurydice during the journey. Orpheus makes the mistake of breaking this condition, and Eurydice vanishes back into the underworld for eternity, leaving Orpheus alone and heartbroken.

The classical Greek myth had been adapted countless times, but it was a Brazilian version that captured the interest of French filmmaker Marcel Camus. Brazilian poet, lyricist, and playwright Vinicius de Moraes wrote a play based on the story called Orfeu da Conceio. The play transported the Greek legend to modern day Rio de Janeiro during Carnival and updated the plot to be more contemporary.

Marcel Camus was intrigued by this bold adaptation and decided to make a film version of Vinicius de Moraes' play to be filmed entirely on location in Brazil. It would be an international co-production between Brazil, France and Italy. Camus had started out as a professor of painting and sculpture before he developed an interest in film. He soon found work in cinema assisting French directors such as Alexandre Astruc, Georges Rouquier and Jacques Becker under whose guidance he learned the craft of filmmaking. Camus made his first solo effort as a director with the 1957 film Fugitive in Saigon set during the war in Indochina. Black Orpheus would be his second feature film effort.

For the screenplay, Marcel Camus collaborated with writer Jacques Viot, with whom he would go on to work together on two more films, Os Bandeirantes (1960) and L'oiseau de Paradis (1962).

Wanting to shoot Black Orpheus in Brazil, director Camus made the decision to use mostly Brazilian actors. Most of them, including Breno Mello who played Orpheus, were not professional actors. Mello was a Brazilian soccer player when Camus invited him to star in the film. The only somewhat professional artist Camus used was Marpessa Dawn, an American dancer, who played Eurydice. Dawn also eventually became Mrs. Camus, though her marriage to the director ultimately ended in divorce.

Camus hired noted cinematographer Jean Bourgoin to capture the rich, colorful images of Rio de Janeiro's Carnival on film. For the music, Camus brought in Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa to bring the vibrant rhythms of Brazil to life on the soundtrack.

by Andrea Passafiume

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teaser Black Orpheus (1959)

Made in Brazil by a French director, Black Orpheus (1959) burst onto the international scene in a vivid, percussive swirl of music and color, winning the Oscar® for Best Foreign Film and the Palme d'Or at Cannes. The film sets the Orpheus myth in the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval. Orpheus is a streetcar conductor who makes such beautiful music that it's said he makes the sun rise. Eurydice is a country girl who has fled to Rio because a man is stalking her and threatening her life. That man, of course, is Death, and after Orpheus and Eurydice fall in love, they must keep their appointment with Death, with Orpheus descending into the Underworld to attempt to rescue Eurydice.

The Orpheus myth has been the basis for several 20th century plays and films, most notably Jean Cocteau's 1950 film Orphe, Tennessee Williams's play Orpheus Descending (1957), and the film version of that play, The Fugitive Kind (1960). Black Orpheus was loosely based on the 1956 musical play Orfeu da Conceio by Brazilian poet, playwright and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes. The music for the play was written by an up-and-coming composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim. Over the next few years, Moraes and Jobim worked as a songwriting team, and one of their earliest compositions is "Chega de Saudade," which is generally considered to be the seminal bossa nova song.

Black Orpheus was a French-Italian-Brazilian co-production. Although it was based on Moraes's play, French producer Sacha Gordine wanted an entirely new score so he wouldn't have to pay royalties to Brazilian music publishers. He asked Moraes and Jobim to compose new songs, and they came up with three, in that distinctive mix of samba rhythms mixed with a softer, jazzier style that the duo had pioneered, and that would come to be known as bossa nova. Gordine decided he needed additional songs, and guitarist Luiz Bonf, who had worked with Moraes and Jobim, contributed two more. Gordine published the songs himself, and was able to claim royalties, making more money on them than the composers did.

Neither of the two leads were experienced actors. Breno Mello was a football player, and Marpessa Dawn was an American singer and dancer. She was born Gypsy Marpessa Dawn Menor in Pittsburgh, and moved to Europe as a teenager, where she met and married Camus (they later divorced). Because of her American accent, her vocals and non-singer Mello's were dubbed by Brazilian singers Elizeth Cardoso and Agostinho dos Santos. Dawn and Mello died within weeks of each other in 2008. Neither ever again achieved the kind of success they enjoyed in Black Orpheus.

Neither did French director Marcel Camus, who had previously directed only one feature film. With the help of veteran cinematographer Jean Bourgoin, who had worked with Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, and Jacques Tati, Camus gave the film a stylized realism, mixing in footage they filmed at the 1957 Carnaval parade in Rio with Bourgoin's smoothly elegant cinematography. They also staged a smaller event using thousands of locals as extras. At first, Brazilians were excited about the film and eager to cooperate. But once the film was released, many critics and intellectuals felt it exoticized their country and portrayed a falsely utopian view of life in the favelas. Some compared Black Orpheus's popularity to that of Carmen Miranda in the 1940s. The so-called "Brazilian Bombshell" seen in movies of the era was a parody, a cartoon character with her fruit-salad headdress and mangling of English. Yet there was real talent there, and real affection for her by audiences. Similarly, those who disliked Black Orpheus appreciated its success abroad, and liked the music and visual innovation, but decried how it represented Brazil to the world.

Brazilian singer and composer Caetano Veloso, who in the late 1960s would be one of the founders of Tropicalia-- a music and arts movement which fused Brazilian, African and rock influences -- was a teenager when the film opened. In his book, Tropical Truth, he recalls that "I laughed along with the entire audience and together we were shamed by the shameless lack of authenticity the French filmmaker had permitted himself for the sake of creating a fascinating piece of exoticism." He claims that de Moraes "hated the film so much that he left the theater halfway through the screening, shouting that his Orpheus had been 'disfigured.'" But Veloso admits that the film has had a powerful appeal to non-Brazilians around the world. "The film seemed (to people of the most widely diverse cultural backgrounds) not only a moving modern and popular version of the Greek myth, but also the revelation of the paradisiacal country in which it was staged," he wrote. "Even today there is no end of narratives about foreigners (rock singers, first-rate novelists, French sociologists, budding actresses) discovering Brazil, all touched by Marcel Camus's unforgettable film."

In 1999, director Carlos Diegues, one of the leaders of Brazil's Cinema Novo movement which focused on Brazilian themes and forms of expression, made his own version of the Orpheus legend, Orfeu, set in contemporary Rio. Caetano Veloso was the film's musical director. Diegues told the New York Times, "Black Orpheus is not an exploitative film. You can see that it was made with real affection and enthusiasm. Camus fell in love with Rio and its culture, but he made a superficial film about something he didn't really understand." Diegues's Orfeu reflected the reality of end-of-the century Rio favelas, with drug lords and guns and hip-hop mixed in with the samba and the tragic love story. It was a bigger hit in Brazil than Black Orpheus ever was. But for film lovers around the world, the beauty, the music, and the universal and mythic qualities of Black Orpheus remain indelible half a century after it was made.

Director: Marcel Camus
Producer: Sacha Gordine
Screenplay: Jacques Viot, Marcel Camus, based on the play Orfeu da Conceio by Vinicius de Moraes
Cinematography: Jean Bourgoin
Editor: Andree Feix
Music: Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonf
Cast: Breno Mello (Orfeo), Marpessa Dawn (Eurydice), Lourdes de Oliveira (Mira), Lea Garcia (Serafina), Ademar Da Silva (Death), Alexandro Constantino (Hermes), Waldemar De Souza (Chico), Jorge Dos Santos (Benedito), Aurino Cassiano (Zeca).

by Margarita Landazuri

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teaser Black Orpheus (1959)


Black Orpheus won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.

Black Orpheus won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959.

Black Orpheus won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.

Black Orpheus was nominated for a BAFTA Award as the "Best Film From Any Source."


"...the most sensuous use of color I have ever seen on is not so much dressed in color as created out of color."
Paul Beckley, New York Herald Tribune

"If it gets too demanding in following the legend, this still gives warmth and depth to the characters. It is beautifully dressed up in color...pic is somewhat cerebral being mainly helped by the fresh playing of the cast especially the Yank actress, Miss Dawn. She makes a sensitive, beauteous Eurydice whose doom is foreshadowed. Color is excellent and director Marcel Camus gives this movement."

" really is not the two lovers that are the focus of interest in this film; it is the music, the movement, the storm of color that go into the two-day [Carnival] festival. M. Camus has done a superb job of getting the documented look not only of the over-all fandango but also of the build-up of momentum the day before."
New York Times Magazine

"Lyrical updating of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend is beautifully acted and directed."
Leonard Maltin, Movie and Video Guide

"Director Marcel Camus...has fashioned an impressive, wildly poetic film from a Brazilian poet's adaptation of the Orpheus legend."
- Time Magazine

"Rather irritating and noisy attempt to update a legend, without showing very much reason for doing so."
Halliwell's Film Guide

"This is one of the first films with black characters that was popular with American white audiences. Females tend to like it better than males, perhaps because of extensive dancing and music (indeed, the film is like an epic dance). It's an extremely colorful film, with emphasis on local customs and costumes. Splendid photography by Jean Bourgoin captures glorious setting (mountains, sky, sunrises, cityscapes).
- Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic

"Camus jumps right into the thick of Carnival with all of its colorful sights, vibrant sounds and rich sensations. Camus's cacophony of the senses is effectively an upscale travel ad for Brazil. The strength of Black Orpheus lies mainly in how it captures the energy of Carnival. In the pre-satellite age, the bossa nova soundtrack of Brazil's samba beat was far more exotic."
- The Washington Diplomat

"The movie's lack of subtlety is exemplified by its's striking how little bossa nova, that infinitely gentle music, the film actually contains. Instead, Black Orpheus is dominated by percussive scenes of slum-dwellers dancing frantically, as if possessed, to the rhythms of samba. These scenes are exciting, but go on endlessly, and with little creativity in the manner in which they were shot and edited. The brief moments of samba's more harmonically sophisticated and jazz-influenced offshoot function, by contrast, like a cool breeze: The bits of "Manha de Carnaval" we hear at the beginning of the movie are a reminder that this is one of the loveliest and saddest of all bossa nova melodies. This is mostly a matter of taste: Plenty of people prefer samba, which in any event is more appropriate to the movie's Carnival setting, to the bossa nova. But the lack of contemplative moments in this film, and its wild plunge from unalloyed happiness to tragedy, is simply a mistake."
- Michael Antman, PopMatters

Compiled by Andrea Passafiume

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