“Black Orpheus” (1959)

I watch a lot of old movies – though not nearly enough new ones – mostly by sifting through the listings on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) or American Movie Classics (AMC) and letting TiVo record them for me to watch later. I just finished watching “Black Orpheus,” a 1959 film that spun the ancient myth of Orpheus and Euridice into the setting of Brazil’s Carnival festival with ethnically African characters.

In this version of the story, Orfeu is a desperately poor cable car employee who works under the watchful eye of a veteran conductor named Hermes, and Euridice has come in to the city from the country to stay with her cousin Serafina because she believes that a man who claims to want to marry her actually wants to kill her. Orfeu is the handsome singer that every woman wants, and who is engaged already to a beautifully seductive woman named Mira. He meets Euridice as she comes in on the cable car and he had no idea that the cousin she is looking for lives in the shack next to his. Of course, they fall in love. As Carnival kicks into high gear, Euridice’s murderer-suitor from the countryside shows up dressed as Death and Mira discovers Orfeu’s infidelity. Adapting the myth, the filmmakers didn’t take a lot of license, but a little; for instance, the escape from Hades portion is replaced by a voodoo ritual when Orfeu loses his lover forever.

This film was really cool to watch. The combination of the ancient myth, the Carnival setting, and the dire poverty of the characters made for an intriguing mix. I kept watching because I couldn’t wait to see where the film was going to take the story and how. Of course, “Black Orpheus” is a little bit dated in its cinematography and acting, but not bad enough to inhibit a good story.

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