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'Black Orpheus': The aesthetic frameworks of the "exotic"

'Black Orpheus' - Marcel Camus

Marcel Camus’ famous 1959 interpretation and re-contextualisation of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has often divided audiences, with newer generations immediately pointing out that Black Orpheus is the manifestation of an exoticised fantasy. Even back when it came out, prominent commentators such as Jean-Luc Godard argued that the film was as empty as its images were superficial.

Black Orpheus, more than anything else, is an overwhelming experience which floods our senses with Antônio Carlos Jobim’s irresistible beats as well as the fleeting images of festivity in Rio de Janeiro. While it did mark a major shift in cinema history by featuring a predominantly Black cast, what does such a development even mean given the fact that Brazilian audiences have mostly forgotten about Black Orpheus?

The film stars Marpessa Dawn as Eurydice, a young girl who arrives in Rio during the Carnival to stay with her cousin in order to escape the clutches of a mysterious man. From the opening scene itself, Camus introduces us to bursts of colour, sounds and song in a carnivalesque landscape where everyone is thinking about the upcoming celebrations that will soon sweep the entire city.

During her time there, she runs into a tram conductor named Orfeu (played by Breno Mello) who falls in love with her at first sight. Over the course of Black Orpheus, Camus attempts to retell the Greek myth by indulging in constant commentaries about modernity and poverty. Although the film was adapted from Vinicius de Moraes’ play, Moraes famously denounced it because it did not stay faithful to its spirit.

One omnipresent complaint about Black Orpheus is that the construction of the characters in the film is almost offensively one-dimensional. In fact, when President Obama saw Camus’ work for the first time, he couldn’t help but notice that his mother’s (who was white) favourite film was actually operating on the same spectrum as Joseph Conrad was in Heart of Darkness. Instead of painting a hateful portrait, Camus infantilised them in his fantasy of an illusory Brazil.

Of course, Camus is clearly not malicious in his artistic intentions but the fact that the film is mostly shot in a scenic, hilltop community and the arena of the Carnival inevitably proves that Black Orpheus is not a document of Rio at all. Camus had the opportunity to explore the city at great lengths and instead of utilising the strength of its various locations, he found himself drawn towards a reductive spectacle.

Now, that spectacle is obviously meticulously crafted with the dynamism of all the on-screen elements and the music just combining to create one frenzied cinematic experience. Unfortunately, any story about Orpheus has to be a poetic one and Camus fails to match the visual poetry that Jean Cocteau managed to achieve in his own interpretation of the same mythological strands.

For modern audiences, Black Orpheus comes across as a curious relic of a forgotten time – an attempt by a French filmmaker to capture the fundamental nature of the Other’s existence which is theoretically problematic to begin with. Due to Camus’ sincerity, however, the film is salvaged to some extent because there are brief moments of genuine reflection and warm humour.

It does beat you over the head with its insistence that the film’s subjects cannot free themselves from the yoke of oppression – the recurring motif of caged birds, the shot of Orfeu through the bars in his hut and the constant contrasts between the grounded community members and the aeroplanes flying to distant locations. It was those banal, easily digestible visual themes that contributed to its unprecedented popularity in the US and solidified Black Orpheus’ status as a classic.

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