|Marpessa Dawn as Eurydice|
Marcel Camus' 1959 classic—which screens tonight at the Big Black Box as part of the TT Film Festival's Carnival Film Series—has been praised and dismissed in equal measure. The film won a Palme d'Or, an Oscar, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe. But it has also drawn criticism. Though it gives us a riot of colour, one colour seems to dominate its gaze. At first, we appear to view the lives of black people as outsiders, with everything rendered quaint, charming, exotic. On the strength of just the first half of the film, Barack Obama once criticised its depiction of "childlike blacks", rendered as, "the reverse image of Conrad's dark savages".
There is something disheartening about the first act of the film which manages to gut Carnival of much of its subversion. The scenes of revelry are often unconvincing; performers look trapped in a pantomime in which they have been told they must simulate the ruction of the masquerade. Mas is meant to be art that is worn on the body; it is the one art form that demands incorporation into the world of its audience. But when the camera captures black masqueraders performing satire in European-inspired costumes, the project is reduced to a spectacle now presented in Technicolor for an applauding Global North.
But that's just one side of the equation in this problematic yet sublime film which follows a doomed love triangle.
At a time when black people in Hollywood films were largely relegated to "mammy" roles, Frenchman Camus gave us black people who were relatively complex. Death and love, characters were allowed to fear both. True tenderness unfurls amid the film's cardboard cut-outs. And here is why the film is still relevant, flaws and all: we are still in need of stories that show how much all races are vulnerable, black, white or otherwise. If the depictions here are artificial, it is only because all art must oversimplify.
And though we may have misgivings about the authenticity of what is being depicted, we cannot deny the film's visual power. Camus makes every shot count. Fabric, nature and even fruits in a market stall form part of his kaleidoscope. Symbols are deployed: a bird in a cage; three trams passing each other. The use of mise en scene is memorable. We often move from intimate domestic settings that tell us about characters to wide shots of Sao Paulo, showing us disparities of wealth already well-entrenched at that time in Brazil. Sound is carefully controlled, emphasis is placed on voice and music, the outside world is muted to add menace to footfalls during climatic scenes. Though at times the actors are boxed in by the arc of the story, they still effectively move us, bridging a crucial gap.
The film's climax is predictable to those concerned with the Orpheus legend. Even so, you cannot help but be roused by the film's central segment. Here, Carnival is imbued with both beauty and menace, its contradictory qualities perfectly captured in an extended sequence which begins with a festive parade and ends with a shocking development. The haunting last act brilliantly merges pathos with social commentary on crime, class and marginalisation.
Here is a film that tells us something about Carnival that is often glossed-over: it is the moment when society reveals its true colours.
BLACK ORPHEUS; screen play by Jacques Viot; based on the play Orfeu da Conceicao by Vinicius de Moraes; directed by Marcel Camus; produced by Sacha Gordine. At the Big Black Box, Murray Street, Woodbrook on February 4 at 7pm. Running time: 100 minutes.
Orpheus . . . . . Breno Mello
Eurydice . . . . . Marpessa Dawn
Mira . . . . . Lourdes de Oliveira
Serafina . . . . . Lea Garcia
Death . . . . . Adhemar da Silva
Hermes . . . . . Alexandro Constantino
Chico . . . . . Waldetar de Souza
Benedito . . . . . Jorge dos Santos
Zeca . . . . . Aurino Cassanio