Black Orpheus (1959): Marcel Camus’ Foreign-Language Film Oscar (Reel/Real Impact; Brazil)

1959: Best Foreign Language Oscar–Year 4
More popular than most foreign-language films at the time, Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus became a must-see art-house hit in the U.S., after winning the grand jury prize, the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival.
Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)
Black Orpheus

Original poster
Black Orpheus, a vividly colorful film relates a tragic love story set in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro during its famous carnival. 
Inspired by the myths of Orpheus and Eurydice, in this version, Eurydice is a young woman pursued by a former lover consumed by Death, and Orpheus is the young man who brings about her death.
Orfeu (Breno Mello), a streetcar conductor and guitarist, is engaged to the exotic Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira).  But he soon falls for Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), the new girl in town, who arrives to visit her cousin Serafina (Lea Garcia). She is fleeing from her hometown, because she is pursued by a mysterious stranger, disguised as Death for Carnival. In order to save Eurydice, Orfeo descends into the underworld.
This was the second film made by Marcel Camus. Viewers related to the film’s grand CinemaScope cinematography by Jean Bourgoin, colorful sets and costumes, and above all, the exciting music, composed by Brazil’s jazz greats, Luis Bonfa and Antonio Carlos.
Serving as a seductive introduction for Western viewers to Brazil’s culture and music, Black Orpheus is credited with increasing interest in all things Latin American (especially Brazilian), boosting tourism to that previously little-visited region.
Reel/Real Impact

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

President Barack Obama notes in his memoir “Dreams from My Father” (1995) that it was his mother’s favorite film. Obama, however, did not share his mother’s views upon first watching the film during his years at Columbia University: “I suddenly realized that the depiction of the childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white, middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.”

A feast to the eyes and ears, the film’s soundtrack also inspired Vince Guaraldi’s 1962 album “Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus.”

Oscar winner Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) claimed that as a boy he watched the film on Korean TV, and that it made a big impact on him.

Oscar Context
In 1959, the fourth year of the foreign-language Oscar category, the five nominees were: “Black Orpheus” from France, which won, “The Bridge” from the Federal Republic of Germany, “The Great War” from Italy, “Paw” from Denmark, and “The Village on the River” from the Netherlands.
Foreign Films Highlights in the U.S.
In the same year, the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) honored The 400 Blows, New Wave Francois Truffaut’s stunning debut, with their Best Foreign Language Film.
Orfeu Negro (France/Italy/Brazil)
Directed by Marcel Camus
Produced by Sacha Gordine
Screenplay by Marcel Camus, Jacques Viot, based on Orfeu da Conceição by Vinicius de Moraes
Music by Luiz Bonfá, Antônio Carlos Jobim
Cinematography Jean Bourgoin
Edited by Andrée Feix
Production companies: Dispat Films (France), Gemma (Italy), Tupan Filmes (Brazil)
Distributed by Lopert Pictures
Release date: June 12, 1959 (France)
Running time: 107 minutes