Black Orpheus opens with a gesture that is both instantly transfixing and entirely pragmatic. A close-up in static of a classical Greek marble bas relief presented with stately respect and disquiet, and then a cataclysm of percussive instrumentation and flamboyant color from a Brazilian festival bursting through the image, almost blowing it up as we are pulled right into the vivaciousness of Brazilian culture and everyday life. It is an instantly lovable, provocative jab at the regal historicism of European art lulled into submission by the weight of relying on the past. It is a pop-art statement to the fire and enticing chaos of Brazilian life. An instant announcement that this film is not going to be you classical Orpheus myth, and that it comes from another artistic and cultural tradition entirely, one brimming with life and present-day presentational zest and movement.
It is for this reason that it is a pragmatic gesture as well; lovely on its own, it also clues us in to exactly the tempo and mode of the film we are about to bath in. The following material is a lightning bolt of a film, as playful and consummately perfectionist as a Tati vehicle but more unhinged. Marcel Camus directs with the bellowing ferocity of a ringleader, allowing the film the texture of an endless parade that erupts with the buoyancy and vibrancy of the heart of the Brazilian Carnaval festival, but he finds time for quiet interludes set amidst the backdrop of cultural pride and unrepentant joy.
At its heart, Black Orpheus is the Orpheus myth; if you wrote it down on paper, the film might seem an expansion in narrative, but not a meaningful change. It is a myth about the temporality and permanence of love and the fleeting status of humans forever drawn to and tempted to impulsivity surrounding love. The myth focuses on Orpheus, who follows his lover Eurydice down to Hades when she dies, only to be granted her life again on the condition that he walks up from Hades, her behind him, without him ever turning to look and prove that she is following him (as a spirit, she can’t be heard). He, essentially, has to trust in Death itself, to respect the legitimacy of Death in everyday life, in order to breathe life into her again.
The film changes logistical factors (it isn’t quite as supernatural a tale here, and more one of joyous nature) but retains the narrative structure of Orfeu (Brenno Mello) and Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) and a love tormented with tragedy, given a new hope, and ripped to shreds by human frailty once again. Yet, if the film has the same notes as the Greek tragedy, it could not play them more differently. If Black Orpheus is a spiritual tale, it finds the greatest form of spiritualism in the effervescence of community and collective chaos. It is positively brimming with carnivalesque, spirited colors, mirthful movement, and raw, almost unconscious human emotion. Indeed, it drinks the spirit of unapologetic vigor and cinematic life blood as a booming, bellowing vocalization of Brazilian life, slathering the screen in humans losing themselves and their inhibitions to the permeating ethos of liveliness and human commotion.
A spirit that is very much a core principle of the African diaspora, a descendant of African religion brought to Brazil (and the US) through slaves communities who found respite and revolt in joining together as a collective in rejection of the individualist tendencies of Western, white society. So too was the unrepressed movement of the community a declamation against the cold, conniving hand of dehumanized repression in slave life. It was a rejection of docility. Tied to the idea of letting your inner self free so that it could be inhabited by an outside force, be it the community or a spirit, dancing represented an ideological rejection of the black body as “object” used and owned by the white master. Slaves danced and removed their inhibitions to fight the internalization of stagnancy (and Christianity) imposed by whites. They announced, essentially, that their bodies could belong to the black community, and not only to the slave master.
Black Orpheus, as a committed and reckless rejection of the stabilizing effect of conventional Western narrative cinema, evokes this spirit more fully than any film ever made. It is a film of momentary impulse, drawn to and stoked by the present-tense joy of community. It does not rush to progress through narrative like many Western films; it stops, lingers, and moves its body to the groove of its scorchingly percussive bossa novva soundtrack for as long as it can. It is a film that follows not only characters from the African diaspora, but a film that relies on African storytelling techniques, and that is as bold a rejection of Western hegemony as a film could imagine.
Like Brazil, the embers of Black Orpheus only burn brighter at night, especially contrasted with some of the darkest, most uncomplicated black backgrounds any film has ever known. In Orpheus, the color of darkness isn’t an unknown populated by fear and terror, but a member of the community. It is a contrast to the flamboyant colors, surely, but also their companion, legitimizing the sublime joy of the community and becoming its own form of luminous light (the evil malevolent force, in contrast, is a striking, high-contrast concoction of white and black). Darkness becomes a birth of light, and black bodies become spaces of blaring passions and human emotion. In its own way, Black Orpheus is dedicated to non-Western storytelling technique (its sincerity in opening up about its emotions is bracingly honest, and entirely opposed to the Western habit of looking at melodrama with disdain). But Black Orpheus also holds a place in its heart for redefining what color can mean as an avenue of cinematic representation, and as an avenue for redefining, implicitly, what “blackness” means in film, and in society. It, to some extent, rejects the idea that “darkness” as a color in cinema, and in life, must represent fear or the unknown.
Happiness in films is renewed with lengthy legislative interludes and trials-by-fire. It is not treated as a renewable resource, nor is it afforded primacy of place. You don’t have happiness in cinema. You have to earn it, and even then, many films seem to bask in an undue prejudice against happiness simply to follow the byline that sadness and despair beget awards and respect. Happiness is transitory, and it is fulfilled in piecemeal chunks. Black Orpheus doesn’t know exclusive happiness, and it understands the mantra that knowing sadness is ultimately a prerequisite for happiness to hold meaning. But it doesn’t hate happy people, nor does it judge them or mock them for their happiness. It is a tragedy, but a tragedy because it revels in happiness for so long, and the waves of sadness only stoke the fires of happiness even further (even Mira, Orfeu’s partner before Eurydice, is not judged for her anger when Orfeu falls in love with Eurydice, when any other film would have turned her into a vengeful harpy). It is a sincere film, unapologetic in its happiness and in its lust for life.
The film needs sadness, surely. When the tragedy arrives at its conclusion, it is because Orfeu doubts the validity of an African spiritual ceremony, and thus doubts the capacity for African spirituality to give Eurydice new life (which is itself a radical statement of the primacy of the spiritual in life within communities of the African diaspora). But the sadness, in the end, begets youthful energy and community among three children who take up Orfeu’s mantle. Black Orpheus is not a film about happiness as a means to sadness, but about sadness as a means to joy. It feels like a fresh breath, and in the ensuing half-century, it has only gotten fresher.