Up to that time, 1959’s “Black Orpheus” wasn’t the first movie based on the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice but it was a unique adaptation from a play from Brazilian writer Vinícius de Moraes. Set in the in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval the film follows trolley conductor Orfeu who falls in love with a newcomer to the city, Eurydice. Their relationship becomes stronger despite Orfeu’s engagement to Mira and Eurydice constantly trying to run away from Death dressed in a stylized skeleton costume. Much like in Greek mythology, Death catches up to Eurydice and, thus, Orfeu travels to the underworld in order to get her back.
“Black Orpheus” is famed for its soundtrack that was composed by two little-known artists at the time: Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá. Their work helped create greater worldwide attention to bossa nova music through several songs in the film like "Manhã de Carnaval" and "A Felicidade".
Though “Black Orpheus” was based on de Moraes’ play, co-produced by Brazil’s Tupan Filmes, shot in Rio with mostly Brazilian actors and spoken in Portuguese, the French government submitted the film as its official entry to the Academy Awards. Since only one film can be nominated per country in the best foreign film category, France was recognized as the recipient of the Oscar. (The movie won the 1961 BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Language and was Brazil credited together with fellow co-producers France and Italy).
Film critics then and now have mostly looked favorably upon “Black Orpheus” though its depiction of dark-skinned, happy-go-lucky Brazilians did not sit well with some viewers. Then-university student Barack Obama acknowledged that the movie was his mother’s favorite film yet he found it to be exploitative. Musician Caetano Veloso remembers the less than favorable reaction in Brazil:
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.Below is a clip from the Oscar-winning “Black Orpheus”, which was directed by Frenchmen Marcel Camus and starred Marpessa Dawn along with Breno Mello:
Video Source – YouTube user Felipe Ruiz de Chávez
Online Sources – NPR; Turner Classic Movies; The Guardian