Orfeu and Eurydice Portuguese language. Brazil, 1999. Unrated. 110 minutes.

Cast: Toni Garrido, Patrícia França, Murilo Benício, Zeze Motta, Milton Gonçalves, Isabel Fillardis, Maria Ceiça, Stepan Nercessian
Writers: Carlos Diegues, Paulo Lins, Hamilton Vaz Periera, Hermano Vianna, João Emanuel Carneiro; based on the play Orfeu da Conceição by Vinicius De Moraes
Music: Caetano Veloso
Cinematographer: Affonso Beato
Producers: Daniel Filho, Paula Lavigne, Renata Almeida Magalhães
Director: Carlos Diegues


Grade: B+ Review by Jeff Vorndam

A  bravura adaptation of Vinicius De Moraes' play Orfeu da Conceição (a play that was also the inspiration for the earlier French-directed film Black Orpheus), Carlos Diegues' Orfeu bristles with energy and bold photography. It deserves to be seen on the big screen where its rich array of colors and sounds can surround you and transport you to the Carnival. Orfeu is not a particularly deep film, but that's okay. Its strength is an unabashed romanticism that plays to the furthest corners of the theater. It's modern in its look and style, but old-fashioned at heart.

The story has its roots in the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In that myth, Orpheus was a musician without peer. His songs caused trees to bend closer to him and rocks to lose their hardness. (This soft-rock mayhem smacks of Gordon Lightfoot, say I!) He married the beautiful Eurydice, and they were inseparable. One day, while running through a field, Eurydice was bitten by a serpent and died. Orpheus was inconsolable. He journeyed to the underworld to plead with Hades to allow Eurydice to return to the land of the living. His songs moved the cold heart of the underworld ruler, so Hades granted Orpheus' requeston the condition that Orpheus could not look back to see if Eurydice was following him out from Hades. Alas, Orpheus couldn't resist. When he stole a glance back at Eurydice she disappeared back to the underworld for eternity. Orpheus lamented and played the most mournful music he could. He abstained from women, which incensed a group of maidens who eventually drowned out his singing with their shrieks. The maidens then tore Orpheus apart limb from limb. In death, Orpheus rejoined his beloved.

In Orfeu, as in Black Orpheus, the setting is present-day Brazil, specifically Rio de Janeiro at the cusp of the Carnival. Toni Garrido is Orfeu, a nationally renowned musician respected by everyone. He has a bit of a reputation as a womanizer, and he thinks a great deal of himself, but he is also charming and loyal to his neighborhood. Despite opportunities to move elsewhere, Orfeu lives where he grew up, in a favela–one of the dilapidated hillside shantytowns outside of Rio where houses are slapped together shacks and streets are narrow mazes haunted by drug dealers. Despite the poverty, there is beauty in the community, as embodied by Orfeu and his music. The set design is believable and otherworldly at once; imagine Pixote's grungy realism combined with the carefully orchestrated artiness of an old Hollywood musical like An American in Paris. The combination of reality and magic gives Orfeu a grandiose sensibility. Objects loom larger–there is a huge moon in the sky, for instance, that could almost have a smiling face on it. Patricia Franca

As objects loom larger, events attain a cataclysmic significance. Orfeu is preparing his Samba dance school to perform in the Carnival parade. It's a big deal for the community and for Orfeu's school. At this hectic juncture, a rural cousin of Orfeu's named Eurydice (Patrícia França) arrives in the neighborhood. For Orfeu, it's love at first sight, and he quickly dismisses his current girlfriend, the ultra-possessive Mira (Isabel Fillardis). After wooing her non-stop, Orfeu wins Eurydice's heart, but their love's consummation is threatened by a brewing war between the police and a local drug kingpin, Lucinho (Murilo Benício). Orfeu and Lucinho were childhood friends, and just like in the classic gangster movies of the 1930s, one of the kids became a pillar of the community while the other achieved notoriety through dealing in death.

The most exciting part of the film is climactic night of the Carnival when Orfeu leads his troupe in the Carnival parade. Director Carlos Diegues pulls out all the stops in cross-cutting between Orfeu's triumphant show, the proud neighborhood families watching on their little TVs, a potential assassin targeting Orfeu from high above, and Eurydice falling into danger with Lucinho and his henchmen. Orfeu is a full-blown tragedy, so it's not difficult to see how it's going to end, but Diegues teases us anyway. The jumping between multiple locations creates a terrific amount of suspense.

Diegues and his cavalcade of writers score points for not marginalizing his characters with strict "hero" and "villain" tags. Lucinho is deeply conflicted. He is well aware that he has no moral ground to stand on and seems to wish the best for the community he terrorizes. He is frustrated misdirected rage, blaming the police, and particularly the zealous Sergeant Pachinko (Stepan Nercessian) for his violent defense against the world. Orfeu's pride is his downfall. If he were less narcissistic, he might have prevented misfortunes. Only Eurydice is unequivocally good, a picture of unspoiled beauty.

Cinematographer Affonso Beato provides several strikingly gorgeous shots to complement the mythic and operatic story. He's worked a lot with Pedro Almodovar. Recall the vibrant and lush colors of All About My Mother, and how they heightened the emotional content of each scene. He works the same magic in Orfeu. Many shots are worth savoring, and luckily Diegues holds them long enough to permit gawking. The sound quality is also excellent. The Carnival is an explosion of sight and sound that mixes Samba with rap and brightness with darkness. Orfeu is a festive tragedy, a St. Vitus' dance of loss and reunification.

Review © June 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 Globo Films. All Rights Reserved.

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