Black Orpheus (1959): Marcel Camus Cannes Fest and Oscar Winner, Reel/Real Impact; Critical Status; Music

French director Marcel Camus directed Black Orpheus (Portuguese: Orfeu Negro), a romantic tragedy made in Brazil, starring Marpessa Dawn and Breno Mello.

It is based on the play Orfeu da Conceição by Vinicius de Moraes, which is itself an adaptation of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in the modern context of a favela in Rio de Janeiro during its Carnaval.

The film is noted for its vivid soundtrack by two Brazilian composers. Antônio Carlos Jobim, whose song “A felicidade” opens the film; and Luiz Bonfá, whose “Manhã de Carnaval” and “Samba de Orfeu” have become classics of bossa nova. The songs sung by Orfeu were dubbed by singer Agostinho dos Santos.

Sequences of the film were shot in the Morro da Babilônia, a favela in the Leme neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro.

A marble Greek bas relief explodes to reveal Black men dancing the samba to drums in a favela. Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) arrives in Rio de Janeiro, and takes a trolley driven by Orfeu (Breno Mello). New to the city, she rides to the end of the line, where Orfeu introduces her to the station guard, Hermes (Alexandro Constantino), who gives her directions to the home of her cousin Serafina (Léa Garcia).

Although engaged to Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), Orfeu is not very enthusiastic about the upcoming marriage. The couple go to get a marriage license. When the clerk at the courthouse hears Orfeu’s name, he jokingly asks if Mira is Eurydice, annoying her. Afterward, Mira insists on getting an engagement ring. Though Orfeu has just been paid, he would rather use his money to get his guitar out of the pawn shop for the carnival. Mira finally offers to loan Orfeu the money to buy her ring.

When Orfeu goes home, he is pleased to find Eurydice staying next door with Serafina. Eurydice has run away to Rio to hide from a strange man who she believes wants to kill her. The man – Death dressed in a stylized skeleton costume – finds her, but Orfeu gallantly chases him away. Orfeu and Eurydice fall in love, yet are constantly on the run from both Mira and Death. When Serafina’s sailor boyfriend Chico (Waldemar De Souza) shows up, Orfeu offers to let Eurydice sleep in his home, while he takes the hammock outside. Eurydice invites him to her bed.

Orfeu, Mira, and Serafina are the members of a samba school, one of many parading during Carnival. Serafina decides to have Eurydice dress in her costume so that she can spend more time with her sailor. A veil conceals Eurydice’s face; only Orfeu is told of the deception. During the parade, Orfeu dances with Eurydice rather than Mira.

Mira spots Serafina among the spectators and rips off Eurydice’s veil. Eurydice is forced once again to run for her life first from Mira, then from Death. Trapped in Orfeu’s own trolley station, she hangs from a power line to get away from Death and is killed accidentally by Orfeu when he turns the power on and electrocutes her. Death tells Orfeu “Now she’s mine,” before knocking him out.

Distraught, Orfeu looks for Eurydice at the Office of Missing Persons, although Hermes has told him she is dead. The building is deserted at night, with only a janitor sweeping up. He tells Orfeu that the place holds only papers and that no people can be found there. Taking pity on Orfeu, the janitor takes him down a large darkened spiral staircase – a reference to the mythical Orpheus’ descent into the underworld – to a Macumba ritual, a regional form of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé.

At the gate, there is a dog named Cerberus, after the three-headed dog of Hades in Greek mythology.During the ritual, the janitor tells Orfeu to call to his beloved by singing. The spirit of Eurydice inhabits the body of an old woman and speaks to him. Orfeu wants to gaze upon her, but Eurydice begs him not to lest he lose her forever. When he turns and looks anyway, he sees the old woman, and Eurydice’s spirit departs, as in the Greek myth.

Wanders in mourning, Orpheus retrieves Eurydice’s body from the morgue and carries her in his arms across town and up the hill toward his home, where his shack is burning. Meanwhile, running amok, the vengeful Mira hits him in the head with a stone, which knocks him over a cliff to his death with Eurydice still in his arms.

Benedito and Zeca, the children who have followed Orfeu, now believe in his tale that his guitar playing was the cause for the sun rising every morning. After Orfeu’s death, Benedito insists that Zeca pick up the guitar, which he does, and the sun comes up.

In the last, rather hopeful ending, a little girl appears gives Zeca a single flower, and the three children begin dancing.

Colorful settings, lavish costumes, and dazzlingly melodic bossa nova soundtrack turns the ancient myth at the center of the movie to a freshly reimagined artwork, which stands on its own merits.



Zeca was played by Aurino Cassiano, a young musician from a large musical family. With brother Amaury on cavaquinho and Aurino on pandeiro, they performed in the streets, calling themselves “Dupla Chuvisco.” In 1957, they were invited to perform in a film, Pega Ladrão, and then Aurino appeared Vai que é Mole. Marcel Camus saw Aurino performing on location, and invited him to test for Black Orpheus.

Breno Mello as Orfeu
Marpessa Dawn as Eurydice
Marcel Camus as Ernesto
Fausto Guerzoni as Fausto
Lourdes de Oliveira as Mira
Léa Garcia as Serafina
Adhemar da Silva as Death
Alexandro Constantino as Hermes
Waldemar De Souza as Chico
Jorge Dos Santos as Benedito
Aurino Cassiano as Zeca

Marpessa Dawn was not from Brazil, but from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Breno Mello was a soccer player with no acting experience at the time he was cast as Orfeu. Mello was walking on the street in Rio de Janeiro, when director Marcel Camus asked if he would like to be in a film.

Da Silva, the actor who played Death, was a triple jumper who won Olympic gold medals in 1952 and 1956.

Critical Status:

Black Orpheus won the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, the 1960 Oscar Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It also nominated for the 1961 BAFTA Best Film, a nod that credited the involvement of Brazil, alongside with France and Italy.

The film was shown in the Classics section of the 2021 Cannes Film Fest.

Reel/Real Impact: Basquiat, Obama, Bong Joon-ho

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

Barack Obama notes in his memoir Dreams from My Father (1995) that it was his mother’s favorite film.

Later, Obama recalled: “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.”

The film’s soundtrack also inspired Vince Guaraldi’s 1962 album “Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus.”

As a child, Bong Joon-ho watched the film on Korean TV, and it made a big impact on him.

In 1999, Carlos Diegues made Orfeu with a soundtrack featuring Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso. That film was not a remake of Black Orpheus but based on Vinicius de Moraes’ 1956 play.