Black Orpheus (1959)

Many arthouse films, particularly older, foreign ones, take a while to enjoy – extensive thinking, or are simply slow-cooking to develop greater understanding or appreciation for them. This is not at all the case for the dazzling Black Orpheus, an exciting, imaginative, vibrant work that truly made my jaw drop upon learning its release date.

This stunning retelling of the classic Orpheus in the Underworld myth is translated to modern-day Brazil during the Carnaval festivities. Within this context, Black Orpheus could very well work as a documentary, illustrating in vibrant detail the planning, execution, and aftermath of this major annual event within Brazilian culture. All the major characters play different roles in the festivities, and it’s fascinating to see how these roles play out throughout the tragedy.

Even from this contemporary context, the story is given the weight of mythology through negative association to the setting of Carnaval Brazil. Eurydice, a geographic outsider, does not anticipate Carnaval like her cousin and the rest of the women do. She is subdued and (understandably) is mostly fearful of men, while the other women chase men in aggressive, active pursuit.

Her star-crossed lover Orpheus also holds a unique place within this world; his music makes the sun rise each morning, and his gentle guitar melodies are a distinct contrast from the hypnotic, pounding sounds of the Carnaval samba.

These separations from their context elevate Orpheus and Eurydice to more than just Carnaval partygoers; their very being is not unique to that time and place, but is malleable to a broader, more universal context – the very stuff of mythology.

The first two thirds of Black Orpheus are a nonstop adrenaline rush, seducing us into the Carnaval excitement, making the tragic final act that much more startling. The tense moments of Death’s pursuit of Eurydice and Orpheus’s fall carry more impact because of their silence, relative to the carefree noise we’d become accustomed to.

Magical realism is not easy to do, but when a film like Black Orpheusdefines its own discourse (much like Pasolini, whose similarly pageant-ridden films were undoubtedly influenced by this one) and elevates its story material to something greater than its face value, it supersedes mere fantasy and becomes an enduring masterpiece.

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