Saturday, March 15, 2008

Black Orpheus

It has been called a masterpiece and won, among other awards, an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Movie, so Black Orpheus has been on the Netflix queue as one of those films that you think you should get around to seeing. This week it eventually found its way to the top of the list. To begin with, it was somewhat hard going. The opening felt a little too much like a cheesy travelogue about Rio at Carnaval time. Like Carmen Jones another adaptation of an older, well-known story, it did not seem to have aged all that well. Yet, the more I watched it, the more it grew on me.

Orfeu Negro, (to give it its orginal title), is a re-telling of the Greek myth told over a three-day span around the time of the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. The players in this version are drawn from the favelas of Rio and the treatment of their lives is bucolically unreal. Thought they clearly live an impoverished life, all that is seemingly important is the Carnaval and all that it represents: abandonment to enjoyment. Early on, one of the characters gleefully recounts that she has no money for food because she has spent it all on her costume. Here is one of the paradoxes of the movie. In its Technicolor splendor, it portrays the colorful excess of the Carnaval with gaily dressed partygoers who seem to have nothing more on their mind than to let their feet dance them around the city for hours. Yet, it is clear that these people's lives are wretched. Their homes are sparsely furnished and flimsily constructed. Carnaval is important to them because it is the one day they can forget how drab and unattractive their lives usually are. Farther into the movie, things are not quite so idyllic as they appear at first, as we begin to notice the presence of the police and the army. Scenes of revelry are punctuated by moments of crowd control that include baton charges and the use of motor vehicles bulldozing their way through the party throngs. Toward the end of the movie, we witness the rounding up of what we assume to be prostitutes and their clients. so, what are we watching - a stylized rendition of a love story set in a fairy-tale land or a transfer of a myth to a modern context? Is the Death figure only a mythological character or is he a real-life serial killer?

The movie gains some shape and pace in the last 20 minutes, as it began to follow the arc of the Orpheus legend more closely. It became more atmospheric and dramatic and you may finally start to care a little more about the characters. One piece of advice, though. If you watch this on DVD, go for the sub-titles over the dubbed dialog. Whoever the voice talent was, and they were not working with the greatest of translations to begin with, they were clearly in a world of their own.

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