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Of Love and Other Demons: ‘Black Orpheus’ (Marcel Camus, 1959)

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In Black Orpheus, Brazil and Carnival become the backdrop to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In one of the more tragic love stories in Greek mythology, Eurydice is bitten by a snake on her wedding day and dies. Determined to bring back his love, Orpheus heads to the depths of hell to plead for her life. He is granted the chance, being told by the lord of the underworld that he can free Eurydice — he must walk back to the surface and she will follow, but if he looks back before they reach the light, she will fade away forever. Right before he reaches the surface, Orpheus — concerned that his love is having a hard time keeping up — turns back, watching her fade back into the darkness.

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Black Orpheus brings this story into the contemporary world, utilizing the carnival as a metaphor for the supernatural world. Death, brought to life by a man in a skeleton suit, is pursuing Eurydice, and Orpheus — for as long as he can manage — tries to fight him off. Building on a classical idea of heaven and the afterlife, one that predates Christianity, the film does not offer love, forgiveness or belief as a saving grace. As noble and true as Orpheus’ love is, it cannot overcome death. Love is a part of life, and maybe the best part of living, but it still cannot help us transcend our mortality. Perhaps this is what’s so powerful about Jesus, as he taught that the capacity to love (and forgive) would ensure some kind of immortality. The film doesn’t ignore this completely, allowing love to live on through song.

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Sex plays a pivotal role in this world, and it is portrayed as much through the environment as the actions. Romantic desire is conveyed through music, the sweetness of Orpheus’ song a symbol of his desire. Music is an art form of the spirit, and it becomes a perfect vehicle for communicating love. You can’t hold a song in your hands like you can a body. Rather than sensuality related to touch, this one is related to listening and feeling. The bossa nova rhythms that the film popularized reflect this sensual coolness. The music is warm and inviting, romance built on trust rather than lust.

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Radically, Black Orpheus also portrays sex without shame. Sex is an expression of love, as much as it is a fun pastime. The aesthetics of sexual performance are intertwined deeply with carnival. Sex is a playground for adults while also being a celebration of love. Courtesy of the costumes and music, the environment is one that is a celebration of life and sex. As the myth itself is about the cyclical nature of life and death, sex plays a pivotal role in this circle. Unlike some more puritanical films that draw a line in the sand between the two, this film embraces sex as multiplicitous. This somehow makes the love more noble, because it is not confused with lust, and sex becomes a celebration rather than a symbol of it.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies, and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.

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