(Brazilian, 1999, 110 minutes, color, 35mm)
The following excerpts are taken from a New York Times review by A. O. Scott, “Orfeu: Reborn in Romantic Rio, Orpheus Flavors Samba with Rap,” August 25, 2000.
Carlos Diegues's "Orfeu" is based on the play by the Brazilian writer Vinicius de Moraes that also inspired Marcel Camus's 1959 film, "Black Orpheus." Mr. Diegues is one of his country's leading directors. (His earlier films include "Xica," "Bye-Bye Brazil" and "Subway to the Stars.") He has not so much remade "Black Orpheus" as tried to correct it and to bring the mythic resonances of the original play into line with the complicated realities of contemporary Brazil.
The basic story -- a retelling of the legend of the bard Orpheus and his tragic love for the nymph Eurydice, played out against the jubilant frenzy of Rio's carnival -- is the same, as is the milieu, the serpentine slums, called favelas, that cling to the city's hills. (The Carioca Hill shantytown in "Orfeu" is a set, painstakingly decked out with graffiti and tattered bits of decoration). In Camus's movie, the favelas were a place of exuberant primitivism, a realm of pure folklore, whose characteristic musical expression, the samba, was the spontaneous expression of joy in the face of deprivation.
Mr. Diegues's Rio, in contrast, is, for all its vivid local color, the hub of a heterogeneous and sophisticated popular culture. And its misery consists not of picturesque squalor but of gun battles between vicious drug gangs and corrupt, murderous police officers. His heroes and villains live in a recognizably modern world. Orfeu, played by the Brazilian pop star Toni Garrido, is a serious musician, composing his sambas with the aid of a laptop and orchestrating his carnival performance with the discipline and self-assurance of a show business professional.
A similar cosmopolitanism informs the movie itself, which turns Camus's romantic ethnology inside out, presenting a nation proudly aware of its cultural achievements and thus able to welcome and assimilate outside influences. Just as Orfeu leavens his sambas with hip-hop and funk -- nobody is scandalized except an obtuse policeman named Stallone -- "Orfeu" filters de Moraes's literary conceit through the lens of American urban cinema. An unseen radio disc jockey, the self-proclaimed "Voice of the Hill," is the film's conscience and Greek chorus, a device that recalls Walter Hill's "Warriors" (also based on a classical source) and Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." And in making the figure of Death a drug dealer who was Orfeu's childhood friend, Mr. Diegues manages both to augment his film's naturalism and to place "Orfeu" in a tradition that extends from the rap-fueled ghetto melodramas of recent years back through "Mean Streets" and, ultimately, the classic gangster movies of the 1930's. . . .
"Orfeu" was photographed by Affonso Beato, whose sense of color so enriched Pedro Almodóvar's "All About My Mother," and it's similarly beautiful to look at without being overly showy. Somehow Rio, like Paris or New York, is one of those cities that looks great on film no matter how many times you've seen it before, and its silvery tropical light, especially when Orfeu calls up the sunrise with his guitar, has never looked better.
The following excerpts are taken from a Los Angeles Times review by Kevin Thomas, “The Lifeblood of Carnaval Pulses Through ‘Orfeu,’” September 8, 2000.
Carlos Diegues' "Orfeu" is such an original and intoxicating creation in its own right that it should not be considered a remake of "Black Orpheus." That 1959 French classic also loosely transposed the Greek myth of Orpheus to Rio de Janeiro's enduring shantytown, Carioca Hill, as the five days of Carnaval unfold. Whereas the '50s film was drenchingly romantic in the tradition of fatalistic French cinema, "Orfeu" is a veritable folk opera of such intense, stylized theatricality and dynamic cultural fusions that only a filmmaker of Diegues' stature and experience could still come through with a film that would be no less vivid.
World-renowned composer Caetano Veloso produced the film's seductive, insistent and haunting music, and cinematographer Affonso Beato captured sequences of the actual Carnaval in the richest of colors. "Orfeu" is totally captivating, as seductive as a samba.
Orfeu (Toni Garrido) is the King of Carioca Hill, a young singer-composer whose songs have mesmerized audiences far beyond his neighborhood. He could afford to leave but prefers to stay, true to his roots. He is good-looking, kind but, not surprisingly, also a devastating ladies' man. He's involved with a gorgeous, ambitious model, Mira (Isabel Fillardis) but is instantly swept off his feet by Euridice (Patricia Franca).
Euridice has just arrived from the Amazon in the wake of her gold miner father's death. She's staying temporarily with her glamorous but embittered aunt, Carmen (Maria Ceica), who was Orfeu's very first love--and who has never gotten over it. The arrival of the beautiful Euridice, alas, does not go unnoticed by Lucinho (Murilo Benicio), the handsome but morose leader of the worst gang of drug traffickers that have made life in Carioca Hill dangerous, constantly triggering brutal raids by corrupt police.
"Orfeu" seethes with dark portents while throwing itself into the spirit of Carnaval, with Orfeu leading the local Carioca samba school's elaborate entry into the parade, which passes through Rio's vast open-air Sambadrome in a blinding array of glitteringly costumed samba dancers and equally bespangled floats. Orfeu's vibrant mother, Conceicao, is played by Zeze Motta, a longtime Diegues regular.
"Orfeu" is heady and exaggerated, so rigorously stylized with star-crossed lovers so appealing and music so irresistible that its fairy-tale world--charged with all-too-real contemporary social ills--comes vividly alive. Drawing from--and updating, in the process--the play by Vinicius de Moraes, the great Brazilian poet, Diegues (best known for "Xica" and "Bye Bye Brazil") reaffirms his dominant position in Latin American cinema.
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