Rapid Response: Black Orpheus

I got a B in Classical Mythology. Could’ve gone better, could’ve gone worse, whatever. If I learned nothing else from the class, I did learn that mythology played a role in ancient Greek society like we cannot imagine, and that in today’s society, the stories and themes are more prevalent than we know.

And upon watching “Black Orpheus,” I was glad to have the background knowledge necessary to fully grasp the greatness of this film.

Marcel Camus’s movie takes place in Rio de Janiero during Carnivale and through this modern lens recreates the heroic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice without ever actually betraying the realism of the setting.

However, the film is loaded with symbolism to the story and most notably its themes, but I can see how a strict reading of the film without the proper context would be an empty one. This is for the reason that “Black Orpheus” is certainly not a performance film, and the many histrionics that compose this tragic love triangle can be a bit much. Further, while it is alive with color from the Rio landscape, the film only has a select few moments of truly cinematic beauty, and for a person confused with the plot, those flashes of greatness may be lost.

Still, I absorbed much from the film. The ancient myth hits on tropes common to all Greek mythology and tragedy. It condemns the prideful humans that question the superiority of the gods, it revels in the tragic certainties of fate and the tendency for tragedy to repeat itself. The film touches on all of these themes in a creative way I would’ve thought impossible.

We observe Orpheus (Breno Mello), a handsome, happy, guitar playing and seemingly blessed man and his love Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), the humble yet beautiful girl destined to become his bride and his obsession. Mira (Lourdes de Oliveria) is Orpheus’s fiancee, but she quickly becomes jealous of Eurydice’s beauty and threatens to kill her.

The film really does not replicate the Orpheus/Eurydice myth alone. Mira, one of the participants in Carnivale and dressing as though she were trying to be a god, represents Aphrodite (or for that matter a number of goddesses) and uses her power to make life hell for Eurydice and consequently prevents Orpheus, who should be a hero, from entering the symbolic Mt. Olympus when she knocks him off a cliff in the second to last scene.

There’s even a Hermes, who acts as a guide and friend to Orpheus and helps him to pass into the Underworld. Truthfully, the film is loaded with symbolism, but it all boils down to how fate catches up to us in moments of pride and in love. I can’t really say how the two children in the film, Eurydice’s cousin Serafina or Serafina’s idiot boyfriend fit into the mythology narrative though.

If there is a problem with “Black Orpheus,” it is that the film never really comes out and reveals itself to the audience and demands that we find the significance in the film’s highly prevalent symbolism. This isn’t really a problem though, because that effort builds to an enriching and original film like few others.