“Black Orpheus”: addressing some of the criticism of Marcel Camus’ 1959 film

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It’s been almost sixty years since Black Orpheus was first released. Marcel Camus’ Academy Award-winning musical has lost none of its energy and beauty. It also feels like more than a film: it is nothing short of a cultural meeting ground where the canvas of sunny Brazil and the inhabitants of the impoverished slums of Rio are metaphorically elevated to the level of Greek mythology.

To be sure, the film has had its fair share of detractors. Criticism of the movie has often revolved around its portrayal of the black third-worlders as singing, dancing, and partying buffoons. However, this criticism is narrow-minded. The musical genre as a whole generally functions on preset stereotypes (surely, unlike Seven Brides for Seven Brothers implies, not all backwoodsmen are ignorant and sexist). Furthermore, this criticism fundamentally ignores that the story takes place in the days of the Carnival, during which, as implied by the wonderful bossa nova score of Luis Bonfà and Antonio Carlos Jobim, Brazilians are depicted as willfully refusing to be sad.

This evaluation also fails to consider that that seeing Black Orpheus as nothing but one continuous celebration implies ignoring the fact that it is undermined by sadness, melancholy, and darkness.

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Many years later, President Obama would also speak unfavourably of the film in his autobiography. In it, he wrote about a time when he went to a screening of Camus’ film, and how this experience made him question his relationship with her. It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to understand that his reason for disliking the movie was that, as he watched his mother’s face light up, he experienced an unease at awakening to his mother’s sexuality, or sexual desires. Black Orpheus was in fact composed entirely of a black cast – this at a time when black were largely ignored or kept away from cinema – and made blacks look cool, trendy and sexy. The breathtaking landscape of Rio is just as spectacular as those black bodies, dancing, and sweating – their bodies glistening in the moonlight.

Finally, the film is allegedly disliked in Brazil. Before Black Orpheus, the country as a whole had largely been ignored by cinema. The entire representation of Latin America in international cinema up to this point could probably be summed up by the image of Carmen Miranda’s fruit hat.

So, why the hate? Well…Marcel Camus was a Frenchman. The reason for the hate is not unlike LGBT’s general disapproval of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour.

Camus saw Brazil from a romanticized, European point of view. The film is an impressionistic fantasy, which is why it cannot be approached as a work of realism. Camus was also informed by primitivism, an art movement that resurged in Europe during the 50’s and protested against Western ideology by taking in awe the cultures of prehistoric peoples – in modern cultures represented most vividly by blacks. Surely, primitivism was naive, but it was also clearly intended to be provocative.

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However, it would be appropriate to see Black Orpheus as following a naturalist tradition. Naturalism, founded by Emile Zola, is a literary movement that recognizes that human behaviour is the result of free will, but that it is also determined by natural laws. The paradox, therefore, is that although a character in a naturalist narrative is able to make his own decisions, his fate has been decided, even predetermined by impersonal forces of nature beyond human control. This is evident in the attraction between Orpheus and Eurydice, which seems sudden, predestined, perhaps part of a genetic pattern that has continued from Ancient Greek times. It is also evident in the relentlessness of the mysterious man’s stalking of Eurydice – the ultimate embodiment of the inevitability of death.

We may, however, see the very end of the film as an optimistic spin on naturalism, which is often described as pessimistic. Ultimately, in fact, the ending of the film does indeed point towards the fact that the film is a celebration of life. But it is far from being the type of fickle work of misrepresentation that some might have you believe. In fact, in addressing the criticism I have just listed, I have failed to state that Black Orpheus is generally lauded far more than it is criticized. In the context of the times in which it was released, the film swept international audiences off their feet. In many ways, it redefined the term “arthouse cinema,” distancing itself from the somber and challenging tones of the works of Bergman. Black Orpheus showed that “arthouse cinema” could be fun.

(Oh, and it also introduced the world to bossa nova, the Brazilian style of popular music.)

Black Orpheus is screening at Nun’s Island Theatre, Galway, on February 4, 2017. For more information, go to https://cinecolascreenings.com/portfolio/black-orpheus-galway-april-3-2017/

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