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Blu-ray Review: Black Orpheus (The Criterion Collection)

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The Film

Black Orpheus is a pure bolt of energy — a film so comprehensively thrilling and exciting that it can’t help but attach itself to your brain and obstinately stick there. Much of that is due to the thumping bossa nova soundtrack that pervades the film with its irrepressible infectiousness, but it’s also because of the charisma of the performers — a collection of mostly non-professional actors who throw themselves into the madness with abandon.

The transplantation of the Orpheus story to the Brazilian tradition of Carnaval creates a collision of myth — Carnaval’s roots in the pagan festival Saturnalia and the Orphic belief in reincarnation — but the film isn’t all that mystical and never really dwells on the symbolism that comes with adapting an ancient myth to modern times. People notice the confluence of the names Orfeo (Breno Mello) and Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), but just jokingly mention it as an aside. It’s hardly the focus — not much interrupts the non-stop party that the film depicts.

Mello’s Orfeo is a free-spirited trolley conductor who would rather use his wages to recover his guitar from the pawnshop than buy his demanding fiancée, Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), an engagement ring. He’s not thrilled with the idea of marrying Mira, and he’s become completely uninterested and detached.

Eurydice soon shows up, on the run from an attacker who will later be revealed as Death itself. She stays with her cousin Serafina (Léa Garcia), who is a mutual friend of Orfeu’s, and the destined romance soon blossoms amid the preparations for the next day’s Carnaval.

Black Orpheus follows the myth fairly loosely, as Orfeu fights off the encroaching force of Death and later, travels to the underworld (here, a series of office buildings at night) and eventually, finds his fate along with Eurydice, but the film’s most magnetic sequences are when the plot is halted and the performers exuberantly samba.

Director Marcel Camus, who didn’t direct anything of note aside from this film, creates a wonderful atmosphere with the film, balancing the frenzy of the samba sequences with the natural hillside beauty of the landscape. Black Orpheus is a joy to experience, and the Blu-ray upgrade Criterion has treated it to is well-deserved.

The Blu-ray Disc

Black Orpheus is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. This edition marks a big improvement over the previous Criterion DVD, which was released all the way back in 1999. The image here is consistent and clean, and looks very film-like with a nice layer of grain present. Some of the colors — yellows, reds and greens, in particular — are quite stunning. The image isn’t eye-poppingly vibrant and does retain a bit of a faded, dated look in some shots, but overall, this is a very pleasing transfer.

The audio is available in a lossless PCM Portuguese track as well as lossy English dub. For a monaural soundtrack, the mix is still fairly hefty, with the film’s bossa nova score the most prominent element. Dialogue is mostly clean and clear, if a bit tinny at times, but overall, it sounds great.

Special Features

Criterion has upgraded Black Orpheus significantly in the extras department as well — an easy improvement over 1999’s feature-less disc. This is a well-rounded collection of extras that focuses on the film’s place in history as well as the criticisms leveled against it for its portrayal of Rio’s slums. Archival interviews with director Camus and actress Dawn are quite short, but a nice inclusion.

Film historian Robert Stam addresses the film’s criticisms in another piece while Gary Giddens and Ruy Castro discuss the bossa nova craze, and the part that the film played in it. Both are well-researched pieces that place the film in an excellent historical context.

Rounding out the supplements is a feature-length documentary ostensibly on the film, but more about the film and music history of Brazil, as well as Carnaval. The theatrical trailer is also included, along with a booklet with an essay by critic Michael Atkinson.

The Bottom Line

This is easily the edition to own of Black Orpheus, with highly improved picture quality and a nice collection of extras from Criterion.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.