Orpheus and Tropical Multiculturalism

Professor Rex Nielson explores how themes of multiculturalism compose Orfeu Negro, the Brazilian adaptation of the tragic story of Orpheus.

Son of the muse Calliope and a student of Apollo himself, Orpheus was perhaps Greek mythology’s most favored musician. Although blessed as both an Argonaut and a lyre player whose music made even the gods weep, Orpheus had a tragic life. As the Fates would have it, Orpheus lost the love of his life not once, but twice, and lived the rest of his days in regret without his sweet Eurydice.

Though tragic, the myth of Orpheus has been a favorite of many as adaptations of this tale of love, loss, and music have appeared across stages and screens around the world.  Orfeu Negro, or Black Orpheus, is a more modern adaptation of the classic tragedy set in Brazil during Carnival. The themes and creation of this particular adaptation are the subject of professor Rex Nielson’s most recent lecture to BYU’s International Cinema because Black Orpheus is seen by many as a quintessential Brazilian film and by others as a cliché rehash of a more nuanced subject matter.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Directed in 1959 by Frenchman Marcel Camus, Black Orpheus fully embraces the concept of Cinema Novo. Created as a result of unrest in much of the world and especially in Brazil during the 1950s and 60s, Cinema Novo showcased themes of drought, poverty, and revolution. Described by Nielson as a “socially progressive cinema nourished by popular Brazilian traditions,” Cinema Novo gave filmmakers an outlet to explore Brazil’s social problems while also proudly “[representing] the Brazilian people to the Brazilian people.”

Black Orpheus embraces all of these themes, reimagining Orpheus as Orfeu, a black samba player who lives in a favela, or slum, near Rio de Janeiro. Although already engaged, Orfeu instantly falls for Eurydice, a woman on the run from a strange man dressed as death. Orfeu and Eurydice’s relationship takes them through the streets of Rio as authentic song, dance, and festival is juxtaposed with the hardship and struggle of the city’s favelas.

Although authentic and beautiful in terms of costume and dress, many critics were harsh in their appraisal of the film. Nielson described how many critics took issue with Camus being French, claiming that his adaptation was not a real examination of Brazilian and African culture, but merely a glorification of Brazilian and African stereotypes. There were others who felt that Black Orpheus strayed too far from its subject matter—the play Orfeu da Conceição, which itself is a retelling of the classic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice—and bordered on the cliché.

These critiques aside, Nielson pointed out that Brazilians still claim Black Orpheus as a Brazilian film and an embodying example of Black theatre. In Nielson’s opinion, the movie contains “some of the best Brazilian music you will ever hear” with authentic performances by Brazilian singers and dancers. In fact, almost the entire cast and crew was Brazilian, providing further evidence that Black Orpheus is a Brazilian film.

But beyond the performances, the themes of Black Orpheus are what truly make it a memorable film. “The film appeals to our fascination with love and death,” said Nielson, who continued, quoting film scholar Robert Stam: “The film is also beautiful. Rio is presented as a tropical Paris set with Yosemite-like granite mountains a blue-green sea. We see the colorful costumes, the joy of life, barefoot children playing their guitars to invoke the rising of the sun in the morning . . . there is an aesthetic beauty to the film.”


Eric Baker (News Media, ’18)

Eric Baker covers events for BYU’s International Cinema. He is a senior pursuing a degree in News Media with a minor in Political Science.