Black Orpheus

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Black Orpheus
(Orfeu Negro)
original movie poster
Directed by Marcel Camus
Produced by Sacha Gordine
Written by Marcel Camus
Vinicius de Moraes
Jacques Viot
Starring Breno Mello
Marpessa Dawn
Lourdes de Oliveira
Léa Garcia
Music by Luiz Bonfá
Antônio Carlos Jobim
João Gilberto
Cinematography Jean Bourgoin
Editing by Andrée Feix
Studio Dispat Films (FR)
Gemma (IT)
Tupan Filmes (BR)
Distributed by GAGA Communications
Lopert Pictures
Release dates
  • 12 June 1959 (1959-06-12) (France)
Running time 107 minutes
Country Brazil
Language Portuguese

Black Orpheus (Portuguese: Orfeu Negro) is a 1959 film made in Brazil by French director Marcel Camus. It is based on the play Orfeu da Conceição (pt) by Vinicius de Moraes, which is an adaptation of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in the modern context of a favela in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval. The film was an international co-production between production companies in Brazil, France and Italy.

The film is particularly renowned for its soundtrack by two Brazilian composers: Antônio Carlos Jobim, whose song "A felicidade" opens the film; and Luiz Bonfá, whose "Manhã de Carnaval" and "Samba of Orpheus" have become bossa nova classics. The songs sung by the character Orfeu were dubbed by singer Agostinho dos Santos.[1]

Black Orpheus won the Palme d'Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival[2] as well as the 1960 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film[3] and the 1960 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film (in those awards the film was credited as a French production; only in the 1961 BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Language Film was Brazil credited together with France and Italy).

Lengthy passages of the film were shot in the Morro da Babilônia, a favela in the Leme neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro.[4][5] In 1999, the film was remade as Orfeu by Carlos Diegues, with a soundtrack featuring Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso.

Plot summary[edit]

The movie opens with an image of a white Greek bas relief that "explodes" to reveal black men dancing the samba to drums in a favela. Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) arrives in Rio de Janeiro, and takes a trolley driven by Orfeu (Breno Mello). New to the city, she rides forlornly to the end of the line. Orfeu introduces her to the station guard, Hermes (Alexandro Constantino), who gives her directions to the home of her cousin Serafina (Léa Garcia).

Although engaged to Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), Orfeu has been pushed by a demanding Mira and not very enthusiastic about the upcoming marriage. Orfeu and Mira go to get a marriage license. When the clerk at the courthouse hears Orfeu's name, he jokingly asks if Mira is Eurydice, annoying her. Afterward, Mira insists on getting an engagement ring. Though Orfeu has just been paid, he would rather use his money to get his guitar out of the pawn shop for the carnival. Mira finally offers to loan Orfeu the money to buy her ring.

When Orfeu goes home, he is pleased to find Eurydice staying next door with Serafina. Eurydice has run away to Rio to hide from a strange man who she believes wants to kill her. The man (Death dressed in a stylized skeleton costume) finds her, but Orfeu gallantly chases him away. Orfeu and Eurydice fall in love, yet are constantly on the run from both Mira and Death. When Serafina's sailor boyfriend Chico (Waldemar De Souza) shows up, Orfeu offers to let Eurydice sleep in his home, while he takes the hammock outside. Eurydice invites him to her bed.

Orfeu, Mira, and Serafina are the principal members of a samba school, one of many parading during Carnival. Serafina decides to have Eurydice dress in her costume so that she can spend more time with her sailor. A veil conceals Eurydice's face; only Orfeu is told of the deception. During the parade, Orfeu dances with Eurydice rather than Mira.

Eventually, Mira spots Serafina among the spectators and rips off Eurydice’s veil. Eurydice is forced once again to run for her life first from Mira, then from Death. Trapped in Orfeu's own trolley station, she hangs from a power line to get away from Death and is killed accidentally by Orfeu when he turns the power on and electrocutes her. Death tells Orfeu "Now she's mine," before knocking him out.

Distraught, Orfeu looks for Eurydice at the office of Missing Persons, although Hermes has told him she is dead. The building is deserted at night, with only a janitor sweeping up. He tells Orfeu that the place holds only papers and that no people can be found there. Taking pity on Orfeu, the janitor takes him down a large darkened spiral staircase (a reference to the mythical Orpheus' descent into the underworld) and to a Macumba ritual, a regional form of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé.

At the gate, there is a dog named Cerberus, after the three-headed dog of Hades in Greek mythology. During the ritual, the janitor tells Orfeu to call to his beloved by singing. The spirit of Eurydice inhabits the body of an old woman and speaks to him. Orfeu wants to gaze upon her, but Eurydice begs him not to lest he lose her forever. When he turns and looks anyway, he sees the old woman, and Eurydice's spirit departs (as in the Greek myth).

Orfeu wanders in mourning. He retrieves Eurydice's body from the city morgue and carries her in his arms across town and up the hill toward his home. Orfeu's shack is burning. A vengeful Mira, running amok, flings a stone that hits him in the head and knocks him over a cliff to his death.

Two children, Benedito and Zeca – who have followed Orfeu around throughout the film – believe Orfeu's tall tale that his guitar playing causes the sun to rise every morning. After Orfeu's death, Benedito insists that Zeca pick up the guitar and play so that the sun will rise. Zeca plays, and the sun comes up. A little girl appears, gives Zeca a single flower, and the film ends with the three children dancing.


Poster by Helmuth Ellgaard for the German release

Cast notes


Black Orpheus was cited by Jean-Michel Basquiat as one of his early musical influences.[9]

Barack Obama notes in his memoir Dreams from My Father (1995) that it was his mother's favorite film.[10][11]

Scenes from the film were used in the lyric videos for "Afterlife" by Arcade Fire from their 2013 album Reflektor[12] and for that album's teaser.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Castro, Ruy (1990). Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World. Chicago, IL: A Capella Books. pp. 166–167. ISBN 978-1-55652-494-3. 
  2. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Black Orpheus". Retrieved 15 February 2009. 
  3. ^ "The 32nd Academy Awards (1960) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 27 October 2011. 
  4. ^ Social Science Representations of Favelas in Rio De Janeiro: A Historical Perspective, Licia Valladares
  5. ^ "Movie palace", The Guardian, 14 January 2006.
  6. ^ Marpessa Dawn at the Internet Movie Database
  7. ^ Hevesi, Dennis (September 5, 2008). "Breno Mello, 76, Star of Orpheus, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 February 2012. 
  8. ^ Guyot, Jean-François (May 17, 2005). "Astro de Orfeu Negro conhece Cannes 46 anos apos vencer festival". France Presse. Retrieved 25 February 2012. 
  9. ^ Eric Fretz, Jean-Michael Basquiat: A Biography, Greenwood Biographies, 2010, p. 5.
  10. ^ Ed Gonzalez, "Barack Obama: A Story of Race and Politics", Slant Magazine: The House Next Door, 22 March 2008.
  11. ^ Tia Williams, "Vintage Vamp: Black Orpheus Star Marpessa Dawn", Essence magazine, 21 August 2011.
  12. ^ "Afterlife" on YouTube
  13. ^ Arcade Fire - Reflektor (Official full album teaser) on YouTube

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Woman in a Dressing Gown
Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film
Succeeded by
The Virgin Spring