Cinema Carnaval: Two Films From the Land of the Marvelous Real

By Jhon Sanders

I’d like to recommend a pair of films for your viewing pleasure, whether during the Carnaval season which features so prominently in them both, or at any time of the year. One is an internationally celebrated, award-winning classic; the other, far lesser known, yet just as deserving of love and acclaim for its achievements of story-telling magic. If you’re like me and you appreciate a bit of fantasy with your “reality”, then you’re sure to find much to your liking here, as both films are infused with the magical realism which their native land South America is well-known for. South America is also a bastion of the festival of Carnaval, and both narratives are set against the background of Carnaval in their respective homelands of Brazil and Uruguay. Each is decidedly charged with the high energies and joie de vivre that permeate both Carnaval and South American culture alike, and both deliver a strong dose of that life-force to us through the venue of masterful cinematic storytelling.

The first is Orfeu Negro, or Black Orpheus, a Brazilian, French and Italian co-production directed in 1959 by Marcel Camus, and winner of the 1960 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, among others. It was based on the 1956 playOrfeu da Conceição” by the poet Vinicius de Moraes, and both are adaptations of the ancient Hellenic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, reset in the shantytowns of modern-day Brazil.

In brief, here is the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus was a Thracian hero-figure renowned not so much for acts of warriorhood but for great gifts of musicianship and singing, the possessor of a golden lyre who was taught to play by the god Apollo himself. He falls in love with and marries the wood nymph Eurydice who’s enchanted by the powers of his divinely endowed musicianship. Following the marriage ceremony on a walk through the woods, Eurydice is pursued by a shepherd who desires her. Amid the chase, Eurydice stumbles into a viper’s nest where she is fatally bitten. When Orpheus learns of the death of his love, he is inconsolable and loses all will to live. So great is his grief, he determines to journey into the Underworld and make an appeal to Hades the Lord of the Dead and his consort Persephone for his love’s release and return to the world of the living. This he does, and against all odds wins his request from the hard-hearted Hades by the grace of his gift of music through which Orpheus expresses his deep heartache and undying love for Eurydice. There is a condition set to this; that Orpheus must not look back upon Eurydice before their complete return to the world of the living or he will lose her forever with no hope of reunion. In a moment of doubt, Orpheus does look back, and the shade of Eurydice is sent straightaway into the heart of the Underworld forever.

In Black Orpheus, Orfeu is a streetcar driver and a bit of a playboy in mid-20th century Rio de Janeiro who sings and plays guitar for the samba school Babylon United. At the film’s outset he is engaged to be married, half-heartedly, to a self-interested woman named Mira who also participates in Babylon United as a dancer. Eurydice, a young woman from a farm in the country, arrives in Rio in the days before Carnaval to stay with her cousin Seraphina in one of the hillside favelas outlying the city to escape the pursuit of a sinister stranger who she believes is stalking her (a masked figure, who turns out to be Death personified). Orfeu and Eurydice cross paths by chance in the city on the day of her arrival, and later again as Seraphina is also Orfeu’s neighbor. Their destiny unfolds from there, and i’ll leave it to you to discover how.

Beyond the contemporary setting, there are many interesting points of departure that make for a fresh variation on the original Hellenic tale. For instance, the introduction of Mira and her jealousy delivers a new yet timelessly human turn to the narrative, in the end driving her to fulfill the role of the Maenads in an echo of Orpheus’ fate at dawn on Mt. Pangaion. Death personified as one of the many figures masquerading among the crowds of Carnaval –combining the roles of Hades and of the shepherd who desired Eurydice– is another novel feature. There are also additions of new, peripheral characters who play supporting yet significant roles in the story; Eurydice’s cousin Seraphina, and two young boys who wander in and out of the action, Benedito and Zeca. Seraphina, who plays the Queen of the Night in Babylon United’s Caranval festivities, encourages Eurydice at every turn against her neighbor’s fiancée. Benedito maintains a curious relationship with both Orfeu and Eurydice, almost that of a guardian of sorts: boyishly smitten by Eurydice’s charms, he gifts her early on with a talismanic necklace which seems to hold Death at bay, and keeps a helpful watch over Orfeu when the drama begins to unfold. Benedito’s friend Zeca is a budding guitarist and admires Orfeu for his talent to “make the sun rise” with his playing, and indeed takes up the mantle himself at the film’s classic, glorious finale. While Orfeu and Eurydice both are reduced from demi-god status to that of working-class and peasant respectively, their divine qualities remain intact in his charismatic singing voice and guitar-playing prowess and the allure of her great feminine beauty.

One of the most remarkable features of Black Orpheus is its use of Carnaval not merely as a dispensable setting in which an archetypal story of love and desire is told but as a fully integrated element of the contemporary narrative. There is an almost constant heartbeat of samba drums heard even when not seen in nearly every frame of the film leading up to the tragic ending sequences; a steady undercurrent of bacchanalian sensuality feeding into a confluence of passions that includes the intense desire shared between Orfeu and Eurydice, Mira’s lethal jealousies, and the ardors of the Carnaval celebration itself that is present in the film from beginning to end. The children and animals running around, the dancing, and other similar touches throughout lend themselves as well quite wonderfully to this overall sense of earthly delight conveyed by Black Orpheus that is also the hallmark of Carnaval.

The second film I have for your consideration is A Dios, MoMo , a 2006 Uruguayan production both written and directed by Leonardo Ricagni. Also known internationally as Goodbye, MoMo, it’s a story told with a decidedly lighter touch than that of Orfeu Negro, though not without its own kinds of darknesses…a well-rounded tale full of everything Life has to offer, and a gentle admonition to open ourselves to the creative power contained within us and the world around us.

A Dios MoMo follows the story of Obdulio, an 11-year-old Afro-Uruguayan boy hawking newspapers in the streets of Montevideo. Carnaval is approaching, and with it, a special magic that suddenly steps in to intervene in the life of a youth meant for greater things. Obdulio aspires to become a celebrated fútbol hero playing for the national team and so thinks he has no use for an education, choosing instead to spend his days as a “working man” raising money in support of his younger sisters. His Grandma, an espiritista and fortune-teller who holds guardianship of the three children, has a different vision for Obdulio’s future…and evidently, so does Life.

The vital energies evoked through festivity in the streets during the 40 day run-up to Carnaval Night seem to take special notice of Obdulio’s situation and arrange for a rather complex interweaving of people and events that unwittingly conspire together in favor of a momentous change of direction in his life. The uncanny is called upon to bring it all about one night following a moment of despair for Obdulio, when a mysterious clown-like figure silently lures him toward his greater destiny that begins after-hours in the offices of the newspaper with an encounter with the enigmatic “nightwatchman”. As all great mentors know how to do, the Nightwatchman sees his opportunity and acts upon it deftly, engaging the boy’s attention and interest with a masterful sleight as he initiates Obdulio into the mysteries of the spoken and written word with the help of the “Singing Machine” (a typewriter) and “Rocinante the Donkey” (a scrolling lyrics display for theatre).

The genius of Adios, MoMo is its magnificent depiction of the way in which many seemingly disparate elements –stories in their own right, on the surface having little or nothing to do with one another– fluidly dovetail together in ways that affect both each part and the whole as though subtly linked somehow, guided behind-the-scenes as it were by the hand of the creative spirit of Carnaval. A poor newsboy, the barkeep who takes a kindly interest in his future, an elderly woman in touch with the spirit-world, a murga troupe who’ve lost their inspiration (tellingly named Hoy Conspiradores de Ilusión), a best friend moving away, a derelict in the street….all these players and others combine together serendipitously, yet bittersweetly toward an ultimate outcome that is only hinted at.

Both Orfeu Negro and A Dios, MoMo are available on dvd at our local source for home cinema, the great Casa Video. Be sure to check them out sometime!

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