Black Orpheus (Blu-ray)
Directed by Marcel Camus
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 107 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 Portuguese; Dolby Digital 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: August 17, 2010
Review Date: August 2, 2010
A tragic story of a doomed romance enveloped by the continuous percussive sounds of the samba make Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus a once in a lifetime love story. Freely adapted from the myth of the sweet singing Orpheus and his beautiful love Eurydice lost forever to the Underworld, Black Orpheus won a shelf full of awards (including the Palme d’Or at Cannes and both the Golden Globe and the Oscar for Best Foreign Film during a season that also included masterpieces such as The 400 Blows and Wild Strawberries) and began an international craze for the bossa nova. In retrospect, it really can’t hold a candle to either of those other foreign film triumphs of 1959, but it nevertheless retains its zest, its riotous color, and its simple love story which even after centuries of tellings in various media remains timeless.
It’s the time of Carnival in Rio, and streetcar conductor Orfeu (Breno Mello) is goaded into an engagement with the vivacious but demanding Mira (Lourdes De Oliveira). Before he can don his costume for the unruly festival, he meets and falls instantly in love with Eurídice (Marpessa Dawn), a shy young girl who’s a cousin of Serafina (Lea Garcia), Mira’s best friend. When she realizes what’s going on, Mira vows to kill Eurídice if she doesn’t leave her man alone, but a death figure (Adhemar Da Silva) skulking around the edges of the celebration has his own plans for the fragile, frightened Eurídice.
There’s absolutely no denying that the bossa nova beat that permeates almost the entirety of the film either front and center or in the background of other scenes, is completely infectious, sweeping the viewer along (like many of the characters in the film) into the nucleus of the singing and dancing. Antonio Carlos Jobim, who contributed three haunting songs to the movie, all of which made him an instant worldwide celebrity and recording artist in his own right, has worked alongside composer Luis Bonfá to add considerable sass and sizzle to the mix, and combined with the singing and dancing talents of the two stars, the film, while not strictly a musical, has a rhythmic soul that buoys the simplistic love story and gives it a worthy context that holds our attention. Camus reaches his apex in one terrifically evocative scene where Eurídice, fleeing from Mira and pursued by Death, enters a labyrinth surrounded by an elaborate electrical conduit, filmed with moody, threatening blood red lighting and the ominous hum from the transformers, a sequence of wonderfully sustained tension and dread.
Neither of his leading actors had had much acting experience prior to making the movie. Surprisingly Marpessa Dawn was a Pittsburgh-born dancer doing her first acting role, and Breno Mello was a star soccer player. Both acquit themselves admirably, especially Mello whom the camera seems to love (aided immeasurably in the form-fitting Apollo costume Isabel Pons designed for him to wear for about half of the movie). Lea Garcia had played Mira in the stage version, but Camus has switched her to the more comic role of Serafina, and it’s a change that works well. Lourdes De Oliveira owns the role of Mira with her jealous snarl and eyes palpably flashing jealousy throughout the movie. Adhemar Da Silva’s cat-like grace makes him a formidable Death. Alexandre Constantino’s Hermes, Orfeu’s understanding older friend, proves himself a noble companion.
The film is framed at 1.33:1 and is presented in a stunning 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. The Eastmancolor palette is excellently reproduced in this transfer with bold reds, blues, greens, and golds standing out. The sharpness of the image is outstanding with a genuine depth to the images frequently experienced throughout the running time. Black levels, moreover, are really superb, likely part of the reason the image has such depth and richness, and are the best thing about this new edition. In fact, were it not for a slight scratch and some momentary color flickering, this would be a true reference quality transfer. The white subtitles are easy to read. The film has been divided into 17 chapters.
The PCM 1.0 audio track (1.1 Mbps) may be monaural, but the incessant beat of the samba and bossa nova music has good fidelity with a decent low end and a high end that is never distorted. The music has an openness that is very appealing in this uncompressed audio mix. Dialogue has been post synced, of course, so it does have a somewhat flat tone to it, but it nevertheless has been well recorded and is never overpowered by the continuous music. Criterion has also provided an optional Dolby Digital 1.0 English dubbed track, but I spent only a few minutes with it. It’s anemic in tone and ambiance (only 192 kbps) and is to be avoided.
A vintage interview with director Marcel Camus was filmed in Cannes in 1959 prior to the movie winning the grand prize. He discusses the problems he faced filming in Brazil and the ultimate joy he had in doing the movie. It runs for 3 ¼ minutes and is in 1080i.
Actress Marpessa Dawn speaks about her career in an interview in French filmed in 1963 after she had appeared in several more films after her debut in Black Orpheus. She talks about how she was discovered, and her desire to do a stage production of My Fair Lady (which unfortunately didn’t happen). The interview runs 5 ¼ minutes in 1080i.
“Revisiting Black Orpehus” is a critique of the movie by film scholar Robert Stam lasting for 16 ½ minutes in 1080p.
“Black Orpheus and That Bossa Nova Sound!” is an entertaining discussion of the rise of the samba and the bossa nova revolution which swept the world after the film premiered. Critic Gary Giddins and author Ruy Castro discuss the musical merits in an 18-minute interview (each man speaks separately) presented in 1080p.
“Looking for Black Orpheus” is an extensive 88 ¾-minute documentary examining modern Brazil and any traces of the Black Orpheus influences which might still be seen today. Filmed in 2005, it’s in 1080i.
The film’s theatrical trailer which is narrated cleverly by Orfeu’s guitar runs 4 ¼ minutes in 1080i.
The enclosed 19-page booklet features cast and crew lists, some beautiful color frames from the movie, and an appreciative essay on the film by critic Michael Atkinson.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4/5 (not an average)
A half a century hasn’t dimmed much of the color and spirit of Camus’ Black Orpheus. It’s a treasurable love story (somewhat reminiscent of West Side Story in its tale of doomed love) surrounded by an ingratiating bossa nova beat. The Criterion Blu-ray release is near-reference quality visually and is easily recommended!