I’m finding it daunting to write about this film. So many prizes: the Palme d’Or at Cannes, an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Foreign film. On top of this, “Black Orpheus” single-handedly launched a craze for samba music, introducing western audiences to the flamboyance of the Brazilian Carnival. And if that weren’t enough, it was the all-time favorite movie of Barack Obama’s mother.
Transplanting the myth of Orpheus to the slums of Rio might sound like a risky idea. But the story of the charismatic musician who ventures into the Underworld and persuades Hades to let him bring his beloved wife back into the sunlit world—only to lose her again—transcends its setting.
We’re given a stylized view of Carnival, a dazzling spectacle that is not without its dark elements. Death haunts the proceedings; a lithe skeleton stalks the beautiful Eurydice, biding his time until he can claim her, once and for all. In the paper-strewn corridors of the Bureau of Missing Persons, Orpheus searches for his lover. A kind old janitor brings him to a black magic ceremony and there, for just an instant, Orpheus is reunited with Eurydice’s spirit.
It is enough. The grieving man carries the body of his beloved through the deserted streets and up the steep hillside to his home. Tenderly he describes the world she can no longer see, and we are consoled by his acceptance of her death.
Something endures. The film ends on a hopeful note. Like the ritual of Carnival, the timeless story plays out, its familiar outlines assuring us that life goes on.