Seen today, the Palme D'Or victory by Marcel Camus' "Black Orpheus" at Cannes in 1959 looks like a historical anomaly, if not an outright flub by the jury. Two defining films of the French New Wave, François Truffaut's "The 400 Blows" and Alain Resnais' "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," played in competition as did Bunuel's magnificent "Nazarin." But the New Wave was still pretty new and perhaps too unorthodox and rabble-rousing to suit every Jury member (though, to be fair, Truffaut did win as Best Director). And let's face it: Camus' Carnival excursion was also a lot easier to dance to than "Hiroshima, Mon Amour."
"Black Orpheus" stands as one of the more famous one-hit wonders in cinema history. It was Camus' second feature and his only critical success, but it struck a chord with both festival audiences and mainstream filmgoers on both sides of the Atlantic. It became one of the biggest non-English language commercial hits in America, and its soundtrack sold bucket loads and ushered in the bossa nova craze in the States (and Europe) that would rapidly transform American jazz.
Adapting the play "Orfeu da Conceição" by Vinicius de Moraes, Marcel Camus (and co-scripter Jacques Viot) grafted the Orpheus myth onto Brazil's Carnival (splashing in a good dose of male and female flesh) to produce a fever dream experience that cast a sweaty, rhythmic spell on audiences. Orfeu (hunky soccer star Breno Mello) is a trolley conductor in Rio de Janeiro who is about to get engaged to the lovely but vain Mira (the scorching, and I mean scorching hot Lourdes de Oliveira) just as Carnival is gearing up.
Then a woman who just happens to be named Euridice (the lovely Marpessa Dawn, an American actress) wanders into town and, as everyone knows (even the people in the film, who seem to be partially aware of their status as players in an age-old, cyclical myth) Orfeu loves Euridice. Mira tries to hold onto her man, but the only one who can keep the pre-destined lovers apart is Death (portrayed by Adhemar Ferreira Da Silva as a skinny guy in a skeleton suit) who, unfortunately, happens to be very good at his job.
The myth provides the backbone for the narrative, but the film's appeal stems from the charisma of its lead actors and the omnipresent music. Mello's infectious smile makes him instantly likeable and Dawn plays the perfect shy counterpart to the rest of the extroverted cast. De Oliveira is surprisingly sympathetic in the thankless role of main bitch, and employs some of the most aggressive and memorable use of décolletage ever captured on film.
But it's the music that matters most. The samba and bossa nova beats aren't just score; they comprise the very environment of the film, as fundamental a force as the wind or the sun (which, incidentally, Orpheus can make rise by playing a song on his guitar … provided he plays it just before dawn). Even when the characters aren't swaying to an impromptu song or in Carnival itself, waves of music undulate in the background. For a film based on a tragic myth, "Black Orpheus" is a joyous celebration of song, dance and life throughout, even in its final scene.
The legacy of Camus' film continues to be debated. It brought Brazilian culture both to the screen and into popular awareness in America and Europe, but its sanitized, Romantic portrayal of favelas filled with happy, dancing poor folk rubbed many critics the wrong way, among them the notable Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha. It is unfortunate that this French film remains the best-known "Brazilian" film of all time (unless you think it was displaced by the loathsome "City of God") but its popular appeal is still apparent more than fifty years later.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and the restored transfer was rendered from a 35-mm interpositive.
"Black Orpheus" was originally released by Criterion in 1999 (Spine Number #48). I don't have the original for comparison, but from what I gather, it had the same weaknesses that many early Criterion releases had – remember that competition was not as heavy then and most DVD buyers were content simply to have any copy of a film.
This 1080p representation is no doubt a major improvement over its decade old predecessor, but it's not on par with the best Criterion Blu-Rays. Image resolution is good but not razor sharp; this is most noticeable in some of the nighttime scenes. The colors palette is rich and well-balanced. There is some wear and tear still noticeable from the source print, but it is fairly minor. This is a very good, but not great Blu-Ray transfer.
Viewers can choose to listen to the film in its original Portuguese or in an English-dubbed version. You're not going to listen to the English dub (in Dolby Digital Mono) except as curiosity so let's talk about the Portuguese audio.
The Portuguese track is presented in a lossless linear PCM 1.0 track. The film is packed to the gills with music and I am not particularly well qualified to assess how it does justice to the richness of the bossa nova score by Luis Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim (credited as one of the major shapers of the bossa nova genre), but to my ears the lossless audio sounds rich and is free of any distortion or crackle, as you would expect.
Criterion has offered a substantial collection of extras, a contrast to the barebones original SD release from 1999.
The longest extra is the feature-length documentary "Looking for ‘Black Orpheus'" (2005, 89 min.) directed by René Letzgus and Bernard Tournois. The directors revisit many of the locations from "Black Orpheus," discuss its musical roots, and interview some of the film's actors, including star Breno Mello along with musicians and crew members. It's a hefty inclusion, but a bit dry and more successful at representing Brazil than in providing any major insight about the film's production. Similar ground is covered in more depth in some of the shorter extras on the disc.
"Revisiting ‘Black Orpheus'" is a newly recorded interview with scholar Robert Stam (16 min.) which addresses some of the controversies surrounding the film, often accused of being an idealized European (mis)representation of Brazilian culture. Stam seems rather ambivalent, balancing his enthusiasm for the film with criticism for its glossy portrayal. He briefly mentions the most damning evidence against the film, some of Camus' own condescending remarks about Brazil and his cast, but these aren't discussed in enough detail here to be properly evaluated.
"‘Black Orpheus' and the Bossa Nova Sound" (18 min) is a 2010 interview with jazz scholar Gary Giddins and Brazilian author Ruy Castro. They detail the origins of boss nova (in its embryonic stages when the film was made) and the way it was embraced and integrated into American jazz. Castro also sounds ambivalent about the film, but unabashedly enthusiastic about its salutary contribution to the popularization of bossa nova.
The Blu-Ray also includes a brief (3 min.) 1959 interview with Marcel Camus recorded at Cannes, and another short (5 min.) interview with actress Marpessa Dawn which originally aired on March 20, 1963 on the television program "Nord actualités télé."
The final extra is a 4-minute trailer.
The 16-page insert booklet features an essay by critic Michael Atkinson who is not the least bit ambivalent about the film.
"Black Orpheus" also won the 1960 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film which is not quite as surprising as its Palme d'Or considering how forgettable the field was even by the Academy's miserable standards.
I'm not a huge fan of bossa nova music, but American and European audiences certainly fell for it head over heels, and it's easy to see why viewers fell in love with this heady experience. I don't think it's a great film, but it's fun, much more so for people who appreciate the music more than I do.
Criterion's 1080p treatment isn't one of its very best, but it's still a strong product that should please any fans of the film. Criterion has also released "Black Orpheus" on SD at the same price point as the Blu-Ray.