Screen: Legend Retold; ‘Black Orpheus’ Bows at the Plaza
By BOSLEY CROWTHER
Published: December 22, 1959
ALL tangled up in the madness of a Rio de Janeiro carnival, full of intoxicating samba music, frenzied dancing and violent costumes, the Frenchman Marcel Camus presents us a melancholy tale in his color film, “Black Orpheus” (“Orfeu Negro”), which came to the Plaza yesterday.
It is a tragic story of a Negro chap and a Negro girl who meet at the time of the annual blowout, fall suddenly and rapturously in love, whirl through the night in a furious revel and fall off a cliff in the dawn. At least, the fellow falls off the cliff, holding the dead body of the girl in his arms. She has been killed the previous evening while trying to escape a scoundrel in a skeleton costume.
According to word from Paris and a somewhat involved program note, this samba drama is supposed to be based on the classic legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. Some parallels may be detected, but to us this seems an innocent conceit, unless you want to claim all sad love stories come from the same original source.
The parallels here are that Orpheus plays a guitar instead of a lute, his Eurydice is killed in fleeing a suitor and Orpheus goes to the morgue (instead of Hades) in search of her. Otherwise it is an arbitrary fable of love foiled in the midst of gaiety, not very well played by its main performers and therefore lacking in real emotional punch.
Breno Mello makes a handsome, virile Orpheus who glistens when covered with sweat, but he performs the role more as a dancer than as an actor trying to show a man in love. No real conviction of passion comes out of his furious posturing. A suspicion of affectation inevitably intrudes.
Conversely, the girl who plays Eurydice is an American dancer, Marpessa Dawn, and she conveys more forthright emotion than does the non-terpsichorean man. A pretty, frank face and a gentle manner that suggest absolute innocence gather an aura of wistfulness about her that filters down into a melancholy mood. This, at least, is appropriate and helpful for the accidental tragedy that ensues.
But it 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 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.
He has got much more of a sense of turmoil in his minor characters—in the people surrounding the lovers and the wild, abandoned mobs in the streets. Lea Garcia is especially provoking as the loose-limbed cousin of the soft Eurydice, and Lourdes de Oliveira is lissome and wanton as the cast-off fiancée of Orpheus. Swarms of sinuous girls and children shimmy and race to the samba beat, which is insistent through most of the footage. That’s what makes the picture alive.
Whether it proves what is concluded—that the poor are doomed to tragedy—is a point we strongly question. But it certainly does fill the ears and eyes.
The language spoken, incidentally, is Brazilian Portuguese, which is translated in English subtitles that completely lack the samba beat. A cat with a cool vocabulary should have been turned loose on them.