After several millennia's worth of Orpheus-and-Eurydice stories, it stands to reason that Brazilian director Carlos Diegues's contemporary filmic retelling of the myth, called simply Orfeu, feels like a trip inside a formidable echo chamber.
Most distantly, Diegues's movie rejoins the Orpheus tales of Aeschylus, Virgil, and especially Ovid, whose love-struck, lyre-playing Thracian was a big hit with the trees, which "came crowding where the poet sang." Needless to say, none of the many species that Ovid lists in such loving detail--"The silver poplar and the bronze-leaved oak, / The swaying lina, beechnut, maiden-laurel, / Delicate hazel and spear-making ash"--exist in the squalid Rio slums where Diegues's film is set. Then again, the movie's harsh urban backdrop is so very far from the pastoral placement of Ovid's Metamorphoses that the contrast itself comes to seem a kind of ironic negative-reference. (Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus also picks up the arboreal theme, and opens, "There rose a tree. O pure transcendency! / O Orpheus singing! O tall tree in the ear!") The only tree that rises in Orfeu, meanwhile, is a scrawny, bare-branched scrub, into which a corpse is tossed in one especially disturbing scene.
Diegues's picture nods more directly at Orphée, Jean Cocteau's spooky 1949 treatment of the tale, and one of the greatest, most magical--and genuinely mythic--of movies. In Cocteau's version, set in postwar Paris, Death (in the sultry form of Maria Casarès's Princess) seduces Jean Marais's dashing poet-hero and in the process comes to figure as centrally in the action as he does. (She also manages to upstage that film's clinging, rather blubbery Eurydice, Marie Déa.) Though the new movie's garish, crayon-colored trappings and playful yet politicized tone couldn't possibly be further from Cocteau's swank cool, Diegues, too, cooks up a close encounter with a mirror and gives Death almost equal billing with the infamous title character.
His Orfeu is a happy-go-lucky samba composer and ladies' man (played by Toni Garrido), who has the cheekbones of a Calvin Klein model, wears his hair in dozens of gently swishing cornrows, and writes his songs on a laptop computer. Death, in this rendition, is a sunken-eyed drug dealer, Lucinho (Murilo Benício), who packs an automatic rifle and vies with Orfeu for control of the rough neighborhood where the two grew up and continue to live. Orfeu himself isn't drawn to the violent life (or death) that his former friend now represents, but most of the other poor people who occupy the shacks that crowd Carioca Hill have no other prospects or choice, and have come to rely on Lucinho's dubious patronage. When they need money for food or a new pair of sneakers, they turn to him, and when someone has committed a crime, they trust that this goon and his gang--rather than the police--will dispense some instant "justice" (death by burning, a quick push off a high cliff, a hole in the head). Through the music he composes for Carnaval, Orfeu struggles with Lucinho for the hearts and minds of the people, but Diegues makes it painfully clear that the hero is losing the battle and that Death, in this place, will out.
As this bleak thumbnail sketch should make clear, Diegues's movie stands, first and foremost, as a retort to another classic cinematic treatment of the same myth, Orfeu Negro, or Black Orpheus, the acclaimed picture by Marcel Camus, which is also set in the Rio slums during Carnaval and also centers on the brief romance and premature death of the singer Orfeu and his innocent, provincial girlfriend, Euridice. With its infectious samba soundtrack by Luis Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim, its fluid, almost painterly camerawork, and its deeply sexy approach to the setting and characters, Camus's movie remains a masterpiece of a certain self-conscious kind of arty 1950s film making. From the opening shots--of a group of grinning men playing cowbells and drums as they dance jubilantly on a hillside, while a line of dark, barefoot women in tight cotton dresses wiggle past them, in rhythm, water tins balanced on their heads--the film works like a happy dream, though to say so means, immediately, to admit that the dreamer is a foreigner, a Frenchman, whose view of third world poverty is romantic, to say the least. Orfeu Negro offers up some of the most picturesque, downright euphoric indigence the screen has ever known.
And though it's perhaps putting it a bit strongly to call Camus's film racist, a South American cousin of orientalism suggests itself in that work. No wonder that a native Brazilian like Diegues saw fit to try to correct some of the earlier movie's idealizations and prettifications. Both the new Orfeu and Camus's version are ostensibly adapted from the same play by the Brazilian poet Vinícius de Moraes (and Diegues's film is also not without its moments of joy), but the movies register in such different ways, their shared lineage seems almost beside the point.
What's variable in these two Orfeus, then, is not the identity of the mythic lovers, or Death, or poetry, but the director's understanding of Brazil and of the Brazilian people. And here it's worth keeping in mind that Carlos Diegues is not someone (like Camus) who has just chanced upon this exotic locale and decided to make a single movie there: He's a film maker whose entire career has been caught up intimately with attempting to probe and interpret his country's complex history and troubled social structures.
As one of the founders and most prolific members of the loosely defined Cinema Nôvo movement, Diegues set out early on to help create an authentic Brazilian cinema, one that took its low-budget, unfussy stylistic cues from both the Italian neo-realists and the auteurs of the French New Wave, at the same time that its young Portuguese-speaking creators sought to engage their audience in a unique--and politically radical--local way. And though this has taken many forms over the years (Diegues, for one, has long objected to the notion that the so-called Cinema Nôvo directors represent any single outlook or school), it still seems apt to quote his late contemporary, director Glauber Rocha, who defined their method simply as "a camera in hand and an idea in mind."
The idea, in Diegues's case, has been to create a cinema both popular and critical, provincial and worldly, lighthearted and serious, or, as he himself once put it, "a spectacle that mixes politics and humor, Shakespeare and modinha de viola, the Beatles and Jorge de Lima, Pelé and Brecht, Maria Bethânia and Godard." It's a jumble that sounds quite wonderful, and one that registers, too, as remarkably free of doctrinaire cant--as does his notion that "a delirious cinema, ideologically positioned, can be much more effective than a thousand films about nutrition, iron or the fall of kings."
It sounds, as I said, wonderful--on paper (both of these quotes come from Roland Johnson's books on Brazilian cinema). But if one looks to Orfeu for realization of this vivid mix 'n' match scheme, one may be a bit disappointed. Replacing Camus's elegant stylization with a gaudier mise-en-scène, Diegues's movie is slightly silly in places. The film is far from a documentary view of the Rio slums, and in fact--with its glittery costumes, gushing symphonic soundtrack, and heavy use of slow motion and cute children--it often comes dangerously close to kitsch. (Though to understand Brazil, an anthropologist friend who has spent much time in that country tells me, one must learn to appreciate the charm of kitsch, an essential component of the national character.) Likewise, the mythic shape of the Orpheus story has been replaced by the outline of a crude soap opera, filled with evil, bumbling cops, controlling mothers, and vindictive ex-girlfriends, with Death taking the blunt form of that trigger-happy drug lord. (There's no mystery to this figure: He's the most obvious character in the whole film.) There are also some strange hiccups in Diegues's script, and while his use of nonprofessional actors is refreshing in theory, in practice--in the casting of the lovely but inert Patricia França as Euridice, for instance--it doesn't always work.
That said, Diegues does manage to create a vibrant street theater backdrop from the real slums of Rio. With its bright pools of fluorescent light, piled-up shanties, and winding staircase-alleyways, his Carioca Hill actually looks like a set constructed in a studio. And he underscores this theatricality by making the film into a rather operatic struggle between opposites--between fantasy and reality, the sun and the moon, life (Orfeu) and death (Lucinho), misery (crime) and celebration (Carnaval), Christianity (Orfeu's mother prays to St. George) and paganism (in the next breath, she promises to make an offering to Ogum Ogunte), male (Orfeu) and female (Euridice), even native culture (samba) and American imports (rap). In the pivotal moment, however, when Orfeu "looks back" at his dead Euridice, he sees himself, and then her, in the mirror--and their two faces seem to merge. In a similar way, Diegues seems to be saying, Brazil itself is the blurring and the unification of all of these potent forces: His film is an attempt to hold the mirror up to that culture.
Whether or not Orfeu works at an extra-ethnographic level is another matter. In the end, the film is really no match for Black Orpheus, and one could reasonably argue that Diegues has simply replaced the loaded symbolism and fanciful make-believe of Camus's film with his own rougher, homegrown sort. It seems to me, though, that it's best not to choose one picture over the other, but to see the new movie as running commentary on the old one--in other words, to ignore the warnings given Orpheus by Hades and Persephone, and keep on looking back. ¤