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Black Orpheus...or, "City of God" before the hard drugs

I just saw the movie Black Orpheus (1959), a film set in the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janiero during carnival, and paralleling the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice from Ovid's Metamorphoses. As 50s films go, it's really not bad in and of itself. It's fun to watch because of the exotic music and setting, and doesn't have that "yawn-when-is-this-going-to-be-over" quality like a lot of films of the period. What's especially cool is that it's a more innocent look at favela life before the advent of hard drugs, which is where the film City of God comes in. If you've seen and liked City of God, you should watch Black Orpheus, just to see what I'm talking about.

Briefly...Black Orpheus is a technicolor re-telling of the legend of Orpheus, a musician and son of the sun god Apollo. Orpheus is legendary for his ability to charm all things--people, animals, even rocks--into obeying his commands. When his wife Eurydice is killed and sent to the underworld, Orpheus goes down to retrieve her, only to fail because he looked back at her while they were trying to re-emerge into the mortal world (if you want more detail, please read the legend on your own). Anyway, Black Orpheus takes this tale and gives it a modern-day spin, casting Orpheus as a local guitar-playing lothario in a favela in Rio, who falls in love with a girl named Eurydice, to expectedly unpleasant results.

Taking place in the midst of Carnival, the film is loaded with music and dancing. In fact, it's almost a continuous music video, with the set looking, at times, like a late-50s version of MTV's The Grind. The music and dance scenes are strikingly modern, making me think the Brazilians have been on to something, music-wise, for a long time. If you've ever heard Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto's famous duet album Getz/Gilberto, you'll recognize a lot of the rythms and beats.

My only other exposure to slum life in Rio is City of God. The two films couldn't be more different in terms of content: one is a contemporary, somewhat lighthearted adaptation of an ancient Roman myth, the other is a dark, violent film about a 70s drug war that actually happened. And I guess that's what's the most interesting thing about Black Orpheus: it's a look at life in the slums during a seemingly more innocent time, before the 1960s and before hard drugs.

Last I checked, it was streaming on Netflix. So if you have any interest at all in Brazilania (if such a word exists), give this film a try.


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