You’ll end up going [to Carnaval]. No one can resist the madness.
In Catholic tradition, the pre-Lenten season is a time of gaiety and celebration. It is right before a period of fasting and penance, all culminating into one final wild night of the season: Carnaval. In classic film, however, Carnaval is less a celebration and more an ominous warning. Black Orpheus and Gilda both depict Carnaval not a festivity but a means of fate, bringing upon an inevitable doom.
Eurydice, the young heroine of Black Orpheus, fears for the worst the entire film. She is chased out of her home by a man she believes is out to kill her, and escapes to live with her cousin Serafina in Rio de Janeiro. She is oblivious to Carnaval, and the world she’s entering, but Serafina assures her she is safe from her pursuer.
She is anything but, however, as Death appears to her her first night in Rio, follows her all throughout Carnaval, and eventually completes his chilling mission.
Death, and his pursuit of Eurydice, is so unsettling for two reasons. First, the sheer inevitability of the tragedy he brings. Eurydice takes a boat away from home, and immerses herself in the kinetic chaos of Carnaval, and yet this same man manages to single her out in the crowd. Second, for how he hides in plain sight. Sure, he comes after her late at night, in her cousin’s home, but he watches alongside the Carnaval-goers and blends right in the crowd, as another dark figure in the spooky masquerade. Evil is not only an unstoppable force, but an omnipresent one who walks among us.
These same fears plague Gilda, the deeply troubled tour de force of Gilda. Tragedy strikes for her the night of Carnaval as well – in the midst of a gay affair in Buenos Aires, a body killed by her husband Mundson is discovered. Mundson escapes from the police, apparently committing suicide, allowing her to marry her ex-lover Johnny Farrell. Death comes to Gilda less explicitly; her social and private life is cut off, and she finds herself in the control of Johnny and his henchmen at all times. She is widowed out of one oppressive marriage, only to wed into another.
Like Eurydice, Gilda is destructively paranoid, though perhaps less justifiably so. Early in the film, she is tossing and turning over toasting “Disaster to the wench” in reference to Johnny’s former lover – herself. This spirit carries on as Carnaval approaches. She watches below, trapped in her prison of a bedroom, and asks her servant Maria what it means. Maria replies that Carnaval is “feasting and merry-making. Then comes the fasting and the penance.” Gilda chuckles and says, “Don’t tell anybody, but I’m awfully superstitious. […] I have the funniest feeling that [….] for me, too, it’s Carnaval.” Even before the aforementioned murder takes place in the casino, Gilda’s instinctive reaction is that tragedy will strike, and her own end is drawing near.
It’s not an accident that both stories build up to the drama heightened by Carnaval. In Black Orpheus, Orpheus has all but shunned his overbearing fiance Mira for the sweet Eurydice, spending the night and later dancing through the streets of Rio together. The narrative pivot, and tragedy that befalls on Carnaval, parallels the end of this happy splendor, a dream world that is too good to be true. Such is the case in Gilda, where the fractured romance between Gilda and Johnny seems to repair as they dance together in the night, and she offers him to “get in practice” again – to rekindle their love. The events of that night, and Gilda’s new prison, are the harsh reality that crush false hope.
Pairing Carnaval, a festive time, with such tragic events is an interesting tonal dichotomy as well. The joyful Carnaval celebrations of Black Orpheus and Gilda mismatch the darker drama unfolding before us, brushing aside a major cultural and religious event before more intimate, personal conflict. Setting the dramatic events of Black Orpheus and Gilda within the context of Carnaval make the narrative elements even more powerful when framed within a supposedly happy time.