The new print of Black Orpheus, currently showing at the Music Box, is nothing short of mind-blowing. Vibrant colors leap off the screen, but the relentless sound track is even more impressive. The 1959 Cannes Palme d’Or winner, directed by Marcel Camus and set in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival, helped turn bossa nova into an international phenomenon (though none of the music is bossa nova, per se). But experiencing the film in a theater, volume cranked, makes it plain that the film’s fantastic sound design involved more than some tunes that would later be transformed into bossa nova classics. Rhythms assault you from start to finish; Brazil is a country where music is as essential as oxygen, and the sound track throbs like a heartbeat.
The beautifully edited dance sequences are driven by primal, complex samba beats; the ecstatic expressions of actual Carnival participants–and their rapidly moving feet–are meticulously cut in sync with the fierce polyrhythms. And the city’s manic intensity is captured from the very first scene, when country girl Eurydice gets off a boat in Rio. An adaptation of the Greek tragedy, Black Orpheus (Orfeu da Conceiçao) was originally conceived in 1956 as a stage musical written by poet Vinicius de Moraes, and it marked the start of his fruitful and highly influential partnership with the then-unknown Antonio Carlos Jobim. (Architect Oscar Niemeyer, who helped create numerous Brazilian landmarks, as well at the UN headquarters in New York, designed the show’s set.) The film version included all-new songs written by Jobim, as well as a few by guitarist Luiz Bonfa. Since Marpessa Dawn (who played Eurydice) was an American, her vocal parts were dubbed by the great singer Elizeth Cardoso–who recorded some of the first bossa nova songs ever. The title character, played by Breno Mello (a handsome soccer star, not an actor), got his singing voice from Agostinho dos Santos.
The storytelling is heavy-handed, the obvious symbolism can be cringe-inducing, and the acting is frequently wooden. But the film still provides a spectacular peek into black Rio–all the more remarkable since it arrived at a time when such earthy, sexual movement was anathema to the average American filmgoer. Its narrative virtues may be suspect, but as a visual and sonic feast it remains unparalleled.