Movie Break: Black Orpheus Resonates Around Four Very Important Themes

Albeit the theme revolves around Carnaval, the key American holiday of Thanksgiving also ties in very well in this 1959 classic film

Image courtesy of criterion.com

Image courtesy of criterion.com

Based on the 1942 Orson Welles B&W film titled, It’s All True–Black Orpheus really shines on four key themes:

Life

Love

Spirit

Happiness

I will review each of these points toward the end of this blog review.

There were many reasons why this film is so highly regarded, since it was honored as both the 1959 Cannes Film Festival Major Award Winner and also claiming the 1960 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film.

The opening features a typical day in the Brazilian countryside.  The sambas begin about 90 seconds into the film, as visions of a kite flying over Sugarloaf Mountain dominate the screen.

A traditional drum beat plays on for about 4 minutes, and is a recurring theme throughout the rest of the film.

The main character Orfeu (played by Breno Mello, 1931-2008) thinks Mardi Gras has truly broken out!  Images of office buildings are seen briefly.  By the time he steers the #2562 Babilonia bus at the Pagador Depot, the original Jobim score of “O Nosso Amor” plays.  Later, we see Hermes (Alexandre Constantino, who almost resembled the late leader of South Africa, Nelson Mandela) helps him find his way.  The conductor goes off with a woman named Mira (Lourdes de Oliveria). She displays some funny banter with the marriage license official, but Orfeu thinks otherwise.

In another scene, Mira pretends to be like the late Whitney Houston, circa 1987 with her unique dancing style.  She agrees to loan him some money.  For 100 cruzeiros (or about $110 in that period of time), Orfeu purchases a guitar.  Euridice (played masterfully by Marpessa Dawn, 1934-2008) is a country girl and tags along with Serafina (Lea Garcia) to find food.

As Orfeu sings to a pair of young boys the song “Manha de Carnaval”, he is seen walking by a rooster, a cat, and two ducks.  I kid you not, the animals definitely had fun in the film.

He also sings to the boys, “Dawning of a New One”–another classic tune.

As the central themes play out in this original ancient Greek myth, some misunderstandings take place in the days leading up to Carnaval as the song “Me For You, You For Me” plays repeatedly.

About the 48 minute mark enters a reaper in dark clothing.  He is seen inside the shacks of the depot and then goes away for a short time.  As a little couple is then seen fighting next door, Eurdicie and Orfeu end up not getting too much sleep inside their favelas (which was a popular form of living as 80% of people lived in the country, unlike in today’s Brazil where 80% of the people live in cities).

The final 20 minutes shows Carnaval, pre-Sambadrome era.  It takes place on a very busy street in Rio, as samba schools perform and the reaper lurks in the crowd.

Inside a darkened train depot, Euridice is being chased by the reaper.  But by the time Orfeu shuts off the power to the depot, the electrical force is too strong for Euridice to overcome and she dies on the spot.  We are then taken to a Ubamba legend inside some mosque as we see their Mass for the Dead.  Albeit there was a lot of cigar smoking in that tragic scene, Orfeu is hearing voices inside his head.  He thought it was coming from Euridice, who was instead being stored in cold storage.  It turned out to be an older woman, aged 65 to 70 making those brief demands.  Hermes then gives Orfeu a check, and then he heads on his way back to the countryside.

As Orfeu then walks on the mountain, carrying Euridice inside a frozen chamber, Serefina finds a rock and in a similar tragic ending like the 2005 horror movie that featured all reality TV stars, The Scorned–Orefu dies, similar to the awful circumstances that Raina did to Matt (Trish Schneider and Bob Guiney, both ABC’s The Bachelor).  A boy sings “Samba de Orefu” to a girl as the movie closes.  Sadly, there are no end credits to the film.

Yes, Black Orpheus has its’ fun moments and it has its’ dark moments.

Overall, the Criterion Collection is a masterpiece.

Top Four Reasons To Own This Film

And there are plenty of bonus features in the Criterion Collection (the artwork you see above applies for both the DVD as well as the Blu-Ray).  The film is complete with superb English subtitles, and other nice features including:

  • A trailer in color, lasting 4 minutes and 17 seconds
  • Two separate B&W interviews from French television:

Director Marcel Camus (1912-1982) who in 1959 stated that he, “waited to film for 7 months” due to distributor issues.

Actor Marpessa Dawn (who was born near a farm in Pittsburgh) in a separate interview from 1963 became a dancer before turning up acting.  She would later land small parts in Paris and the United Kingdom.  Her big quote on being recognized was simply, “Star sounds so superficial.”

Ironically, Dawn would pass away 42 days after Breno Mello, who was the central focus on the major documentary that involved a few historians and famed Brazilian music author Ruy Castro.

Columnist Robert Stam said of the movie, and I quote from the 2005 documentary:

“It almost felt like a Frenchmen describing baseball.”

The documentary shows Breno walking around on the exact spots where the movie was filmed.  Interspersed with classic scenes, the only location that still looks the same today is the train depot. Music historian Gary Giddins does a nice job explaining the evolution of bossa nova as a movement, and shows the evolution of when Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto blossomed in the United States during the 1960’s, the first major strike against the Fab Four in the Beatles.  The documentary also shows some modern bars and locals singing some of the songs to adoring crowds.

Also being interviewed is Patricia Franca.  She starred in a 2004 remake of this film, but with a different twist.  In scenes that might relate more to your local cable Public Access channel where a good guy is being chased by a bunch of bad guys and stands up to keep her woman happy, while at the same time hoping to live happily ever after.  At least, that’s what I remember most of my friends from high school doing  in two really cool movies during my youth.

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Overall, this movie is definite thumbs up, five-star material.

Buy it for the music, keep it for the cool scenes, and savor each and every moment of the really neat bonus features.

As I said at the very beginning of this blog review, that movie ties in perfectly to what American Thanksgiving is really all about:

Life, Love, Spirit, and Happiness.

In my world, we are truly thankful we all have our Health and great Shelter to keep us from not shivering at night.

We love our families and friends unconditionally, albeit in this online social media dominated world–it makes that statement a bit more difficult to achieve unlike with prior generations.

We display spirit, not just in our current dreams and ambitions, but also remembering those who we used to share past Thanksgiving celebrations with.

In my case, I go back to the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when my mother’s dad would bring his wife and drive about six blocks to pick up my grandfather and great aunt, with pumpkin pie firmly in tow.  30 minutes and crossing two train tracks later, I would see them hit the door just as CBS began their sports coverage when The NFL Today would sometimes show off a cornucopia inside their old New York studio.

I would help them take off their jackets and place their scarves on our coat rack.  My grandfather would then be seen inserting an anti-freeze type liquid into our really tall group of bushes which was attached to part of our front yard.  A few minutes after he put his empty gallons that housed the liquids into his trunk, we would get to talking about the previous night’s lottery drawings.  “I only had two on a line once” and “When are we going to win the big one?” were often common themes leading into our early afternoon dinners.

The Chicago Bears appeared in the old Pontiac Silverdome in 1991, a game the Bears should have won–but didn’t.  I recall turning my head just after swallowing some stuffing to see Da Coach, Mike Ditka nearly chew out some officials over a blown call.  I really thought then and there that things would be different.  Calm and cool Wayne Fontes and Detroit came up huge, and you know the rest of the story.

This leads to my last point, Happiness.

We are happy for many different reasons.  I am so happy to have such awesome MPB’s and other artists to chat with on a periodic basis, whom I can safely call as true online friends.

I recall saying in one of my first blogs that if I had an All-Star team, it would be awfully difficult to narrow it down to just nine ladies.  Every person that I profile is very good in their own individual ways, and for that–I wish everyone in the United States including Fabiana Passoni, Sherie Julianne, Lori Carsillo, and others a very Happy and Safe Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

As I say around my household, it is tempo de crise crise devora devora, or

Gobble Gobble, Crunch Crunch Time.

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