Renowned Brazilian director Carlos Diegues has attempted to make a movie worthy of the music that has provided his nation with a soundtrack for the past century. But Diegues's samba-inspired Orfeu doesn't prove a very good dance partner. Like the floor charts sold to North Americans eager to learn the latest Brazilian dance craze, the commercial concerns of contemporary cinema keep the once-daring director locked into well-worn steps.
Diegues pays homage to the samba, a form of cultural expression for the Brazilian working and lower classes. In the favelas, the shantytowns that cling precariously to the hillsides surrounding Rio de Janeiro, the samba made a musical celebration of the struggle to survive.
Both the lowdown and the high-tone rhythms of Brazil have inspired classic films. Carmen Miranda's 1933 debut in The Voice of Carnival inaugurated a musical-comedy genre known as the chanchada. In 1955 Nelson Pereira dos Santos directed Rio 40 Degrees (Rio 40 Graus), a film that took samba seriously and inspired the socially conscious cinema novo movement that would preoccupy Brazilian filmmakers in the generation to come. In 1958 French director Marcel Camus set Black Orpheus, an Oscar-winning retelling of the Greek myth, in the favelas at Carnival. The French film adapted the Brazilian version of the tragedy first staged in Orfeu da Conceiçäo, a play by poet and songwriter Vinícius de Moraes. Although set during Carnival, neither the play nor the French adaptation stuck strictly to samba. Black Orpheus introduced bossa nova to the world by featuring compositions by Moraes and his collaborator in cool, Antonio Carlos Jobim -- a pair best known to the rest of the world for their cocktail-shaker classic, The Girl from Ipanema.
Diegues watched Moraes's play as a teenager in 1956, the same year he saw Pereira dos Santos's samba film. Inspired by the treatment of Afro-Brazilian culture in each work, the young man went on to make a series of films dedicated to the history and political struggle of Afro-Brazilians. A proponent of the cinema novo movement, Diegues resisted standard Hollywood aesthetics as inappropriate for Brazil. Cinema novo proposed instead what collaborator Glauber Rocha called an aesthetics of hunger, refusing to cover up the poverty suffered in Brazil with the glamour of a celluloid spectacle.
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Twenty-five years later, an older and more cautious Diegues has done just that with Orfeu. The director still demonstrates a commitment to documenting the downtrodden by updating the myth to contemporary Rio. The war among Greek gods becomes a war between contemporary drug lords, a corrupt police force, and the godlike Orfeu (Toni Garrido), a Carnival champion and ghetto poet determined to stay in the slums as an example to his desperate neighbors. Cinematographer Affonso Beato makes that slum look stunning, however. In the days leading up to and following Carnival, costumed revelers move through a landscape so fantastic that even stray bullets and summary executions fail to render favela life horrific. By comparison the festival finery taken from footage of the real-life Carnival 1998 looks unappealing. Shot with the staid inexorability of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade at the sanitized Sambadrome, this Carnival is so dull it's no wonder Orfeu prefers the slums.
The only element of the film that is even less interesting is Patricia França's portrayal of Euridice. Supposedly this country girl's beauty and innocence overwhelm the handsome young lord, leading him in the end to the netherworld of insanity. Although both Garrido and França are easy on the eyes, neither achieves the depth of character required to take this melodrama to the heights and depths of tragedy. Playwright Moraes originally tapped into the Orpheus myth to show how Carnival and samba are exuberant Dionysian pleasures, which paradoxically are made possible by the suffering in the favela. To achieve these highs and lows, Diegues would have had to linger less on the lachrymose passion of his protagonists and spend more time in the frantic halls where costumes are created and dances rehearsed -- more time, that is, in the samba schools.
(This review first ran on February 17, 2000.)