Greek Tragedy with a Latin Rhythm

A tale as old as Zeus and the titans needs to be told with some zest and boisterous panache to keep it alive. Director Marcel Camus struck gold in transposing the classic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to contemporary Brazil in Black Orpheus (1959). The theater style of ancient Greece gets a huge reboot. Instead of strange distant folk in masks spewing lines in a monotonous cadence while the chorus summarizes and informs the audience of events that occur offstage, Camus thrusts us into the wildly frenetic and vibrant world of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. Hot blood rushes through the veins of these characters and the bossa-nova beats never stop. All the torrid romance and colorfully chaotic pageantry you could want and more await you in Black Orpheus.

Orpheus (Breno Mello) is a flirtatious, carefree bus driver (shall we call him a scamp?) and denizen of the Rio shantytowns. The local children believe it is Orpheus’ guitar playing that wakes the sun up every morning. His buxom fiancee, Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), tries to keep him focused on their impending wedding, but alas Orpheus is a playboy and is not entirely sold on the idea of being tied down to one woman. Enter shy newcomer to Rio, Eurydice (the lovely Marpessa Dawn). Needless to say Orpheus is smitten right away. Eurydice will be staying with her cousin Serafina (Léah Garcia)—who lives right next door to our guitar-strumming protagonist (scamp). Amidst the festivities and excited anticipation for Carnaval, a forbidden romance blooms. Eurydice, initially distrusting of the pushy and cocksure Orpheus, soon finds herself turning to him for safety when an ominous figure—Death himself clad in a skeletal leotard (Adhemar da Silva)—crashes the party and lurks her.

If you are at all familiar with the Greek myth there will be no spoilers here. After a very expedited courtship Eurydice is haunted once more by the skeleton figure and then Mira discovers Orpheus’ betrayal and chases her away from Carnaval. Death corners her and (I will not reveal how) she dies. Distraught, Orpheus must wander through the “spirit world” of barren streets, empty hospitals, and deranged midnight religious gatherings to find Eurydice and bring her back from the underworld. Classic Greek drama. And then it all ends in terrible yet poetic tragedy.

Black Orpheus represents a very fantasy-like interpretation of Rio de Janeiro. This is not City of God (2002). This does not depict the gritty hardships of slum life or the violence of gang warfare. Camus attempts to keep the characters pure and self-contained within a world of sumptuous samba beats and vibrant colors. It’s probably closer to Donald Duck’s adventures in Saludos Amigos (1942). Black Orpheus is a picture-perfect postcard of the exotic pulsating liveliness and rich beauty of Brazilian urbanity. The story reflects more a poetry to the city than a factual account. What makes this more fanciful take on the city all the more interesting is that Camus grounds the myth in reality. Orpheus does not literally descend into the depths of Hades, but rather the tempo of the film merely shifts and what was once a spectacularly populated and light-drenched celebration has relocated and the streets are desolate and unwelcoming, but it is still the same city. The spiritual characters from the myth are humans, yet they speak in riddles. It is a fascinating blend of fantasy and realism and it somehow works beautifully.

One of the big things about this movie is the music. One thing Black Orpheus might have in greater quantities than its colors and lively characters is music. Characters will become so overwhelmed by the rhythmic bossa-nova beats that fill the score that they simply have to start dancing. This movie is like taking the pulse of a Latin drum for 100 minutes. If the gorgeous use of Technicolor didn’t wake you up then the energetic, sensual melodies are sure to get your blood flowing. Nubile bodies contort to the frantic beats and fabric rustles and sways around vigorously shaking limbs. The film is alive. The wall-to-wall music does something else too. It creates a feeling of safety and civilization so that we become all the more uneasy when it vanishes and we are left alone with Eurydice as she flees Death in a dark and dormant trolley station at night. Up until this moment all has been joyous gaiety and sexy spectacle strategically punctuated by hot evenings of love and desire. When the music goes so does our sense of safety. The scene where Eurydice tries to hide from an ever-advancing Death in dark silence is truly a wonderful bit of fantasy suspense.

Despite the tragedies that befall our main characters Black Orpheus manages to find significance within all of it. As when Romeo and Juliet died, we were sad but our experience transcended the characters’ limited worlds. There is catharsis, redemption, and peace in this tale. Black Orpheus, despite the misfortunes that rip our lovers apart, does end on a surprising but well-earned happy note. I highly recommend this movie to anyone with a taste for romance, tragedy, music, and exotic cultures.

Top 1o Reasons to See Black Orpheus

1. It introduced North America to bossa-nova music when it came out. See what they heard.

2. Although we’ve labeled it a tragedy, the film features some delightful moments of humor and playfulness.

3. If you find yourself unable to relate to the romance between Orpheus and Eurydice, Serafina’s relationship with her oblivious boyfriend Chico (Waldemar De Souza) is a very funny counterbalance.

4. Death wears a leotard…and still manages to be menacing.

5. It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe as well as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

6. It’s got dancing, partying, and witchcraft. You can’t beat that for romantic drama.

7. It has been hailed as one of the best and most colorful uses of Technicolor photography and they might be right.

8. The cast is full of beautiful people you probably haven’t seen before.

9. It was filmed on location and that really adds texture to the story.

10. It’s a beautiful story and a worthy adaptation. I’d rank it alongside Kurosawa’s take on King Lear with Ran (1985) as one of the great re-imaginings of a classic story.

picture references:

http://www.american-buddha.com/blackorpheus.toc.htm

http://ctache.blogspot.com/2008_09_01_archive.html

http://www.moviemail-online.co.uk/film/dvd/Black-Orpheus-Extended-Edition/

http://arananfms.blogspot.com/2010/08/orfeu-negro-1959-black-orpheus.html

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Feb. 22, 2011

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Everybody Loves Satyajit Ray

Not all Indian cinema is bombastic Bollywood musicals.

Every so often a film or filmmaker reaches us at just the right time in our lives. Thus was my late introduction to Indian auteur, Satyajit Ray, and his films Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), and Apur Sansar (1959), together making up the Apu Trilogy. Perhaps it is just the unpredictability of life and apparent insensitivity of fate featured in these movies that make them so readily understandable despite the great cultural gap, or perhaps it is something more. Granted, tragedy plays a huge part in all three films, but I do not think I would love them so much if they were devoid of any hope or redemption.

pather panchali2Ray’s style is almost documentarian in execution and one must pay very close attention to the women in his films. Like Japanese director, Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu monogatari, 1953), Satyajit Ray likes to portray the struggles and plights of women in patriarchal society with compassion and humanity. The Apu Trilogy is a family history. Characters are introduced, but not all will make it to the end. (Warning: spoilers ahead…but I do not think revealing too much can weaken these films’ impact).

The first film, Pather Panchali (a.k.a. The Song of the Little Road) is the story of the Ray family in the provincial village of Bengal, India in the 1920s. The struggling Brahmin family consists of the naive poet father, Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee); the stoic mother, Sarbajaya (Karuna Bannerjee); their daughter, Durga (Runki Banerjee and Uma Das Gupta); Sarbajaya’s elderly sister-in-law, Aunt Indir Thakrun (Chunibala Devi); and soon Apu (Subir Bannerjee) is born.

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The narrative is not forced. Pather Panchali feels like a slice of life and reminiscent of Vittorio de Sica with its Neo-Realist approach and use of non-actors. Things happen. Emotions rise and fall. We see the whimsy of old Aunt Indir and we see the simple ideals of Harihar wax away. We see a poor mother’s internal struggle with her foolish husband (reminding me quite a bit of Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu monogatari) and her strained relationship with Indir and her torment at the hands of the village folk who persecute her for the way her daughter behaves. We see young Durga steal fruit and cause her mother much duress and we thrill with little Apu and his beloved sister when they makeup after a fight and they see the train rush by for the first time as they race through fields of tall grass.

We are introduced to these characters as if they are real people, not mere pawns to move a plot forward. In a way, there is no plot. Satyajit Ray’s character’s are the impotent victims of the unsentimental storm of life and our hearts are broken for them as we witness their misfortunes and we count the lines on their weather-worn faces as the years go by. Death’s sting is especially potent in this film. Sickness, death, and other hardships meet this family and rob them of much, and as the glue that holds them together is rubbed thin we find a melancholy solace in the knowledge that sometimes we must simply press on.

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The second film, Aparajito (a.k.a. The Unvanquished) is just as heart-rending. The dwindling Ray family must continue on. This marks one of the first sequels (for me anyway) where I was really saddened that certain characters would not be returning. I noticed the quiet expressions in their faces when they were thinking about their loved ones who did not make it.

Apu (Pinaki Sengupta and Smaran Ghosel) is growing older and making friends in the city of Benares where they have moved. His father, Harihar, works as a priest, but when he falls sick and does not survive, Sarbajaya is left alone to provide for herself and her young son. They move to the Ray ancestral village of Mansapota and she works as a maid.

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Sarbajaya is my favorite character. Her struggles as a woman, a wife, and a mother in a harsh world that has not done her any favors is mesmerizing and tragic. She is stoic and levelheaded, but over the course of the two films we witness the toll the tough years take on her. She is just one woman who has not ended up where she probably originally hoped or thought, and she must take care of her family despite all her pain. Her portrait, brilliantly played by Karuna Bannerjee, is beautiful, powerful, and heart breaking.

Apu is apprenticed to be a Brahmin like his father, but attracted by some children playing along a road, asks his mother to let him go to school. He discovers the joys of learning. Sarbajaya feels like Apu can learn and bring honor back to the family. Perhaps the next generation of the Ray family will not be as unfortunate, Sarbajaya’s eyes read. Apu proves a diligent scholar and is awarded a scholarship to a prestigious school in Calcutta. At the sudden prospect of being truly alone, Sarbajaya tries to dissuade Apu from furthering his academic career, but realizes how much it would mean to him and gives Apu her savings and allows him to go. Apu grows and learns while Sarbajaya grows lonely and older. She hides her failing health from her son but quietly wishes he would return to see her. When he does return it is too late. Devastated, Apu ignores the urging to stay in the village and be a priest so he returns to Calcutta to perform the last rites for his mother. He will make something of himself even if no one will be there to see it.

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The final installment, Apur Sansar (a.k.a. The World of Apu) shifts all focus onto an older Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) as a poor graduate living in Calcutta. He sells his books to pay rent and he lazily searches for work to pay for university tuition and works on writing a novel based on his life. He meets an old friend, Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee), who must attend a cousin’s marriage and, not desiring to go alone, urges Apu to join him.

They travel to the village of Khulna for the ceremony where things do not go exactly as expected. As Satyajit Ray continues this exploration of the tragedy and beauty of the unexpected, the bridegroom shows up on time, but has a severe mental disorder so the bride and bride’s mother become extremely upset. The father and elders insist that their daughter, Aparna (Sharmila Tagore), will be cursed if she does not marry on the appointed day. In their efforts to fix the doomed marriage, Pulu and the elders elect Apu as the replacement groom. Apu, disturbed by the sudden idea, finally agrees to marry Aparna (since his life isn’t really going anywhere else). Apu warns Aparna that he is very poor and although she is initially disappointed with their meager wages and shabby apartment, she does indeed fall in love with him.

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The marriage actually gives Apu a wake-up call and he begins working as a cleric. He teaches his wife things that he learned in school. They write letters when they are apart and their love grows, but tragedy (naturally) strikes when the beautiful Aparna dies giving birth to their son while away. Apu rejects everything and runs away from the world. He hates the child he has never seen, but he sends money to his father-in-law to take care of him. Apu lets the wind take his manuscript as he releases it on a mountaintop and weeps. Life without his beloved Aparna is not worth living. Why would fate torment him like this?

After many years of forsaking his fatherly responsibilities Pulu finds him and urges Apu to see his son, Kajal, and father the boy (who is becoming quite wild in his grandfather’s care). After much convincing, Apu goes to retrieve his son from his father-in-law, but the boy does not think Apu is his father, but perhaps he may accept his confidence as a friend. They depart together to start a new life.

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As the saga of Apu and the Ray family comes to a close and we dry the tears from our eyes and take a deep breath at the emotional depths these movies have taken us, we can pause and thank God for directors like Satyajit Ray. Pensive cinematography, shimmering sitar score composed by Ravi Shankar, close-ups loaded with emotion and thought, and the journey of one filmmaker are just a few reasons to find these movies and watch them. We see Satyajit Ray grow as a filmmaker and become more sure of humself with each new chapter in this beautiful trilogy. This experience really whet my appetite for more films of Satyajit Ray.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” January 30, 2010.