In the grand scheme of films made by Frenchmen, “Black Orpheus” is probably one of the stranger ones. It was only director Marcel Camus’ second film, but with it he won the Palme d’Or and set his
name in the halls of movie history for one of the most beloved, and sadly forgotten, films of all time. Maybe you’ve heard of the film and maybe you have not, so let me describe it to you: Black Orpheus is a vacation advertisement for Rio de Janeiro during the “Carnaval” season. The film has dancing, shouting, music, romance, and comedy. The entire movie is shot in brilliant technicolor and has a color pallet so pleasing to the eye the film would work without sound.
The story is an old one, based on the Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Eurydice, a lovely Nymph, falls in love with Orpheus, the greatest musician to ever live, and Orpheus pursues her love even after she dies. That’s right, after her death Orpheus descends into the depths of hell to bring her back. In this film the setting is not the countryside of Greece, however, but the streets and sounds of Rio during the festival.
The plot is nearly unrecognizable from the few versions of the original myth that survive, but the basic premise remains: Orpheus loves Eurydice so much he would face death for her. And no doubts that Eurydice is a sight to behold in this film, Marpessa Dawn is beautiful in the role, and Breno Mello is handsome and clearly fits the part of Orpheus. But for a large portion of the movie they are kept apart and do not have much contact, but once they are given a chance to interact they sizzle and their chemistry pops off of the screen.
I love Greek mythology, and in general the culture of the ancient Greeks. I’ve even spent the last two years at a Bible College learning to read Koine Greek. But tools for Bible-study aside, Greek mythology is fascinating to me, and the Orpheus myth is one of my favorites. For a long time I did not understand why a man would give up his own happiness to rescue a girl (enter the screams of five-year-old boys everywhere: “cooties!”), but in the last year as I have come to know and love the woman I am going to marry, I’ve suddenly “got it”.
At its heart, the Orpheus myth is about a man who wants to protect and take care of the woman he loves, but ultimately he cannot. I suspect from my own experiences that this is a fear most men have. Call me old-fashioned, but I feel the need to protect my wife-to-be, and she feels the need to be protected, and as the antithesis to that I fear failing her in that regard. Orpheus makes it very clear that he will protect Eurydice from the danger that follows her and Eurydice willingly accepts his help, but in the end Orpheus can’t save her.
But the magical part of the film is how it ends. The cycle continues. A little boy picks up Orpheus’ guitar and meets a pretty young girl. The Orpheus myth is doomed to repeat itself; an endless cycle of heartache. This film represents more than a Greek myth, music, or the culture of Rio de Janeiro. “Black Orpheus” is about the endless cycle of love and the heartache it brings, because eventually all things end and no one is together forever. But there will always be another starry-eyed young couple to take their place. Always.
No other film has the ability to make you want to go somewhere than this one. Every time I watch it I want to pack my bags and fly to Rio for the Carnaval. It’s a dream of mine to try and find that hilltop over looking the bay, and play the guitar to “make the sunrise” as Orpheus does in this movie. Dreams!