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Orpheus in Brazil

A comparison of Black Orpheus (1959) and Orfeu (1999)

Breno Mello stars as Orfeu in Black Orpheus (1959)

Black Orpheus is a dazzling technicolour film by the French director, Marcel Camus. Orfeu (Breno Mello) is a trolley-driver and beloved singer who lives in the Rio de Janeiro favelas. When country girl, Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), arrives at the favela to stay with her aunt, the two fall in love whilst the city prepares for Carnival. Eurydice has come to Rio de Janeiro because she is running away from a man called Death who she believes is trying to kill her. At the same time, Orfeu is avoiding his fiance, Mira, who is angry that Orfeu has so quickly lost interest in her. Carnival brings music, dancing, romance and tragedy to the characters of the film.

Black Orpheus became an international success, winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Although it was received positively by international audiences, the film was criticised by Brazilians, particularly by members of the filmmaking movement, Cinema Novo. Cinema Novo was political cinema, influenced by Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave, and had an emphasis on social equality and intellectualism. It opposed the traditional Hollywood-style Brazilian cinema that was popular at the time. Filmmakers of the Cinema Novo tradition criticised Black Orpheus for its romanticism of Brazilian poverty and exoticism of afro-Brazilians. One of the Cinema Novo filmmakers, Carlos Diegues, decided to direct his own interpretation of the Orfeu Da Conceição play, which became the film Orfeu (1999).

Toni Garrido as Orfeu in Orfeu (1999)

Orfeu brings the legend of Orpheus into the 1990’s, with Orfeu (Toni Garrido) as a renowned musician who lives in the Carioca Hills favela. Carioca Hills is routinely raided by the police who are trying to capture and punish the drug dealer, Lucinho (Murilo Benício), and his crew. In this adaptation, Eurydice (Patrícia França) accidently gets shot by Lucinho, who then throws her body off a cliff. Orfeu climbs down the cliff face to find her and brings her back to Carioca Hills, where he is killed by a mad and jealous Mira.

In Black Orpheus, the two actors portrayed love (and lust) at first sight amazingly. Orfeu is represented as a man who is loved by all, but is waiting for a love that is all-encompassing. He finds this love in Eurydice, and watching them fall for each other is a delight. Their romance grows during the preparations for Carnival, and when they finally get to the parade, they joyously dancing together to the rhythmic and tantalising samba music.

Everybody loves Orfeu because of his beautiful voice and the way he plays guitar. It is no wonder that Eurydice falls in love with him after hearing him play, because the music in Black Orpheus film is magical. The music has great range, from slow, romantic songs to the raucous beating of the Carnival drums. When I first watched the film, I couldn’t help but dance in my seat because the music is constant and thumping throughout. The film helped bring Bossa Nova to international audiences, and in many ways it brought Brazilian music to the rest of the world.

Marpessa Dawn and Breno Mello as Eurydice and Orfeu in Black Orpheus (1959)

One thing that Black Orpheus does not explore is the realities of poverty that these characters would have faced living in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The film presents a romanticised version of the favelas, where there is no garbage or woes, and life is a big party. In his memoir, Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama describes watching Black Orpheus for the first time with his white mother:

"I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different".

Obama puts into words the uneasy feelings that come from watching this film as a black person. The film is a sensual and energetic musical, but these qualities can skew the representation of black and brown people to a non-black audience, particularly with a film like this that was the first of its kind and an international success. Conclusions can be drawn by audience members who know nothing about afro-Brazilians or people from Africa and the diaspora based on preconceived racial and class prejudice. Black Orpheus focuses on themes of love and loss, whilst ignoring the realities of poverty in Brazil’s favelas.

In comparison, Orfeu director, Carlos Diegues, aims to complicate the Orpheus tale in Brazil by presenting disparities that are overlooked in Camus’ Black Orpheus. Where Black Orpheus presents the favelas as a colourful community in the hills, Orfeu presents the enormity of Carioca Hills through aerial shots. The largeness of the favela immediately confronts you with the realisation of how many people live in poverty in Brazil. The Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatistica found in its 2010 census that 22% of Rio de Janeiro’s population live in favelas. In Black Orpheus the favelas are spacious and the characters have homes to themselves, whereas in Orfeu the favelas are bustling with people and characters share their homes with their families.

The drug dealer, Lucinho (Murilo Benício), and his gang in Orfeu (1999)

By telling the story in the modern world, Diegues allows space to explore the idea of the underworld through the pressing issue of violence in Brazil and in Rio de Janeiro. In the film, parts of Carioca Hills are controlled by drug dealers, and the neighbourhood is raided by brutal police. Although it is not the focus of the narrative, the film interrogates individual and state violence.

Unfortunately, the representation of women in Orfeu is two-dimensional. Diegues goes into great length to create Lucinho and Orfeu’s backstory, but only gives the women stories of jealousy and lust. Orfeu is loved by all the women, but in a possessive and jealous way. All the women want to keep Orfeu to themselves, including his mother, Mira and Eurydice’s aunt. In the scene where Orfeu brings Eurydice’s body back to Carioca Hills, a group of women flock to him and pull at his hair and body, conjuring the image of torturous harpies. The only woman who is not jealous and mean is Eurydice, but even she does not have much character to her. This affects the love story, which is unbelievable due to their dialogue and lack of chemistry.

Both these films have their successes and failures, but it is interesting to compare these films for their approach to representation. For a film like Black Orpheus, It is understandable to make art that focuses only on concepts of love and loss, but with wide-reaching forms like films, the representations of characters and settings make as much of an impact on audiences as the narrative itself. Diegues knew this, and chose to explore issues outside of the love story in his film. He places the love story in a context and aims to flesh out the issues and problems that the characters would really have living in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Thus, he aims to make the characters and the stories more authentic to the context. This obviously is something that must be done with research, or with experience of the context itself, and an understanding of cinema's influence and effect on the political and personal.


We would like to acknowledge and pay our respects to the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nations whose lands we are living and working on today. 

Showcasing and discussing screen media that explores black identities, experiences and perspectives.



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