dvd review: Black Orpheus

(Criterion Collection)

My admiration for the producers at the Criterion Collection knows no bounds: they keep topping themselves, month after month, maintaining an oasis in the DVD field even as major studios are running for cover and cutting back on titles. Their new release of Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus is a perfect example.

First, we have a stunning color transfer of the sensuous and exotic film, which has never looked or sounded better. Even after half a century, it is unique—and, ironically, an example of a “one hit wonder” for director Camus.

Then there are the extras, which fill a second disc. A feature-length documentary examines the impact of the film, revisits some of its locations in Rio de Janeiro, and reunites some of its cast members—including the charismatic Breno Mello, a soccer player who’d never acted before—and Camus’ assistant, who still lives in Brazil. But the documentary casts a much wider net, explaining how the idea of a modern-day retelling of the Greek myth was developed as a play by Vinicius de Moraes, and how many Brazilians felt the movie betrayed de Moraes’ ideas and intentions (even though he is credited in the picture). The filmmakers also explore the differences between the reality of the favelas and the idealized—

—picture painted by Camus. In a striking example of “real life” being affected by an influential movie, apparently the sambistas who dance in unison on screen during the Carnaval had never done so before. This was the first time their movements were ever choreographed—but the idea caught on afterwards.

In a separate video lecture, eloquent Brazilian film scholar Robert Stam explains why some Brazilians resented the film—and the very fact that so many people considered it a Brazilian movie when it fact it was made by “an outsider” from France. (Some of those who were hostile to Black Orpheus in 1959 have softened their opinion over the years, especially since it presented such an appealing picture of Rio, its people, and its music.)

Another video piece deals with the enormous worldwide impact of the movie’s score, especially in America, where it became a sensation quite apart from the film. Tunes like “Samba de Orfeo” and “Manha de Carnaval” have remained jazz standards. Black Orpheus paved the way for introduction of the bossa nova and launched the international careers of such gifted musicians as Luiz Bonfa, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Joao Gilberto. Jazz critic Gary Giddins and Brazilian music expert Ruy Castro are perfect guides through this aspect of the story.

Black & white filmed television interviews from the time of the film’s release with American-born leading lady Marpessa Dawn and director Camus are interesting, of course, and an essay in the accompanying booklet by Michael Atkinson adds further insight.

I don’t always have time to fully dive into Criterion’s bonus features, but in this case the more I watched, the more involved I became. It was truly a learning experience, and that is the highest compliment I can pay this DVD/Blu-Ray set.

Subscribe to our newsletter


Maltin tee on TeePublic


Maltin on Movies podcast


Past podcasts


Maltin On Movies Patreon


Leonard Maltin appearances and booking


June 2024