Originally written in 2017
Several years ago, I viewed the classic, 1959 film “Black Orpheus,” for the second time. Although I was only seven years old when the Oscar-winning film first premiered, I clearly remember going to see it for the first time with my parents. The hypnotic drumbeats, the vivid images of colorful Carnaval costumes and the breath-taking, vertiginous vistas from favelas high atop the mountains of Rio de Janeiro stayed with me across the decades. What I had forgotten were the specifics of how the movie brilliantly re-tells the bare-bones Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in that riotous samba setting.
First, it has to be acknowledged that the simplicity of the black characters, and the simple delight they take in Carnaval, have been identified as racist portrayals by no less an authority than President Obama, who mentions in “Dream of my Fathers” that “Black Orpheus” was his mother’s favorite movie. That said, though, in my view the characters’ simple outlines well serve the mythological context of the story. It is a stripped-down fairytale of love and death that is both a universal human myth, and a story that could be re-told in the context of almost any century or set of people. Director Marcel Camus’ decision to cast it as a tale of Rio’s Carnaval was a stroke of genius, and the imagery he generates to tell it is some of the most evocative that I have seen in any film.
Orpheus is portrayed as a tram conductor and Eurydice as a villager who has come to Rio by ferry to escape a vengeful lover who she fears will kill her. Where better to lose a pursuer than in the masked madness of Carnaval? This highly period and place-specific retelling really soars, though, in the director’s decision to have Orpheus unintentionally kill Eurydice, just as he’s trying desperately to save her. Eurydice has been running away from the masked figure of Death, in an amazing skeleton costume. When she finally arrives at the darkened tram station, which has been presented to her as a refuge, she runs to the end of the platform, Death still pursuing her. At that point, cornered, she leaps onto a high wire. Orpheus hastily arrives at the station, running, and seeing nothing in the dark, he throws on the main power switch. She is instantly electrocuted. This is an insightful variation of the original story, in which Eurydice is killed by snakes: insightful specifically in that it highlights the power of anxiety and fear to cause people so often to harm or even accidentally kill the ones they love the most.
But it is the way the film contrasts the bright revelry and hypnotic beats of Carnaval, symbolizing the life force, with Eurydice’s journey into the underworld and Orpheus’ deep grief, that impressed me the most. After Eurydice is killed, her body is transported by ambulance through a deep, dark highway tunnel that I recognized from my 2009 visit to Rio de Janeiro as a tunnel I had ridden through in a taxi, deep under the Corcovado mountain. Orpheus follows her body to the “Office of Missing Persons” and the morgue, where a janitor tells him that he will find nothing in the building but dusty old files.
After he finds her body and her death is confirmed, he and the janitor descend a magnificent oval staircase that appears to burrow deep down into the earth (although the viewer recollects that Orpheus had previously taken an elevator up to the morgue.) Once they arrive at the lowest level, Orpheus is brought into a secret ritual of the Macumba Afro-Cuban religion, where men and women dance, whirl and speak in tongues. The janitor tells Orpheus to sing to Eurydice; when he finally does, he hears her voice answer him in response. Then, fatefully, Orpheus turns to see that the voice is emanating from an old lady who, in a trance, appears to be serving as a medium. As we all know, that backward glance separates Orpheus from Eurydice forever, within this life.
Leaving the church, Orpheus carries the inert body of Eurydice back up the steep hill to his favela. There in a jealous rage, Orpheus’ fiancé, Mira, flings a stone at Orpheus, sending him crashing over the cliff to his death, still bearing the body of Eurydice. This was the same vertiginous precipice where, in an almost invisible piece of foreshadowing, we watched little children gleefully dance the samba at the beginning of the movie. The panoramic beauty of the sky over the cliff, and its terror, are two sides of the same coin; two halves of the same whole. In any case, it is abundantly clear that only in death could Orpheus and Eurydice be re-united.
What remains for all of us is the lament of the timeless and haunting Antonio Carlos Jobim song, “O Felicidade,” (“Happiness”) which Orpheus has sung to Eurydice on his guitar repeatedly throughout the film. His guitar is supposed to have the power to raise the sun in the morning, on Ash Wednesday, so the two little boys who have followed the Pan-like figure of Orpheus throughout the film, play it with the intense concentration and deliberation of their grief on losing him.