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.

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

The Littlest Fake Manslaughter

It’s a small film, but an important one. It is the collective work of Morris Engel, Ray Ashley, and Ruth Orkin for the 1953 American independent movie, The Little Fugitive (aka The Coney Island Kid). Not only was it a huge influence on American independent cinema and the French New Wave, but it’s also just a really good movie on its own. There are also elements of Italian Neo-realism. One will be reminded of the work of Vittorio de Sica for its perceptive non-romantic insights into little-seen worlds of lower class characters and for the directors’ use of non-professional actors. One might also see how both the style and mood would appear later in the works of Truffaut and Godard. Me? I see Hal Roach with a cheaper production team.

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The story follows the adventures of little seven-year-old New Yorker, Joey Norton (Richie Andrusco). When his mother (Winifred Cushing) must leave town to visit their sick grandmother she puts big brother, Lennie (Richard Brewster), in charge until she returns. Lennie is bummed because he wanted to go to Coney Island and hang out with the guys and now he has to watch Joey. To get rid of Joey for awhile, Lennie and his friends devise a plan. Joey loves cowboys and guns so they get a rifle and some ketchup and trick little Joey into believing he has accidentally killed his big brother. Then they terrify him by saying the cops will be looking for him so he better run. And thus our movie begins.

It’s a simple enough setup, is it not? Small boy thinks he’s murdered his brother and so hides out at Coney Island. What makes this movie different from other films that follow the trails of killers is that Joey is a kid and handles things differently. Joey’s brother is alive (and eventually becomes remorseful and very worried about his missing brother) and so his fear of the law is irrational and since he is so young he naturally processes his own concerns for surviving and the moral dilemma of killing and lying differently than an adult might. He still needs his mommy to take care of him. He is not independent. He is not Harrison Ford.


After only a few hours following the apparent gunning down of Lennie, Joey is happily distracted in the carnival atmosphere of Coney Island. He’s getting his picture taken at a booth where you can stick your head out of a hole to make it look like you have a strong man’s body. Joey plays some of the midway games and collects glass bottles on the beach for small change to ride the horses. It’s lackadaisical and loose and there’s not much to keep Joey glued to his dilemma. He sleeps under the pier and tries his best to collect enough bottles to ride the horse again in the morning. There’s only about as much structure to Joey’s adventures as there would be if we were to follow a real seven year old boy around. The free-flowing narrative and organic hand-held camera shots with their cheap 1950s grain adds much texture and believability to Fugitive. Much like de Sica and Satyajit Ray,  Morris and company capture a living documentary style that has a strange unkempt elegance to it. Much of the footage (particularly at the beach) was taken covertly without the “extras” even knowing they were being filmed. Pure guerrilla filmmaking.

Lennie realizes too late that perhaps the joke they played on him was a bit much, but his real motive for finding Joey seems to be the fear of what might happen if mommy found out. He feverishly writes messages on walls, poles, and garbage cans in the hopes that Joey might see them and come home. Lennie is most definitely sorry for what he did even if most of his lesson-learning is dictated by the imminent consequences. But isn’t that how all developing minds learn?

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The Little Fugitive (small admission, I personally prefer Coney Island Kid for the title) reminds me of a grittier take on Hal Roach’s Our Gang series. The story even feels as though it could have been told with folks like Stymie, Spanky, Wheezer, and Petey as the vehicles. Perhaps this is because Roach and the independent filmmakers behind this film understood something about kids that many filmmakers miss. Children are not mere puppets to present adult foibles and paint the tragedy of the spoiling of innocence in the real world. What makes The Little Fugitive such a successful and enjoyable movie is its uncanny ability to present a child’s eye view of the world. It does not condescend. The perspective of an adult is not something to be merely superimposed onto the face a youth. Kids are kids. They are different creatures who understand the world and how it functions in a different light, sometimes a forgotten light. They make mistakes grownups would easily avoid and they solve problems in ways grownups would never think of.

It also hearkens back to a much simpler time. 1950s New York City is a time of the past and this film is a great peek into what a child might have seen. It’s classic slice-of-Americana filmmaking and it’s a breathing postcard of a lost era. Joey walks around with a great big cowboy pistol around his waist the whole time. This was before those orange, plastic safety knobs at the tip. People seem friendlier and more trusting. Wishful thinking? Maybe, but I’d like to live in that wish for awhile. It all feels like how carefree and magical my own childhood was…before they scared us all to death with “Stranger Danger.”

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The movie is a little rough around the edges, but this in no way detracts from the experience. I submit that much of its crudeness adds much to the presentation. What I like most about The Little Fugitive is how well it captures a child’s world. There is imagination and wonder for the mundane and then neglect for certain consequences, but they ultimately pave the way for much growing. The film does not paint Joey’s adventure as anything profound or moral, but rather as just another chapter in a growing boy’s life. I can almost see an 80 year old Joey recounting the time his brother tricked him into thinking he had killed him and so he spent a few days exploring Coney Island. It’s not played up for dramatic effect, but rather it presents the story in a more subtle and realistic light.

If you like children “lookin’ fo-uh dair bruddahs” and if you like Our Gang or French New Wave or Neo-Realism or independent films than this is a must see.