TELLURIDE '99 REVIEW: Diegues' "Orfeu," A Mythic Tale -- Purely and Powerfully Operatic
by Margaret A. McGurk
The guest director invited to help program the Telluride Film Festival this year is the famous iconoclast of the opera world, Peter Sellars. His hand was nowhere more in evidence than in the selection of Carlos Diegues' Brazilian drama "Orfeu," based on the same play that inspired the 1959 classic "Black Orpheus."
The movie has its good moments and bad, a mythic tale, talented cast and vivid look. But all of it -- settings, story structure, character development, emotional trajectory -- is purely and powerfully operatic.
Only the music, a rich melange of traditional samba and modern rap-influenced pop, is far removed from what we think about when we think about opera.
The story revolved around Orfeu (Antonio V. Garrido), a charismatic samba composer from a slum neighborhood dug into a hillside in Rio de Janeiro. Though he has made it big, by local standards, and repeatedly leads his samba "school" to victory in the annual Carnival parade competitions, he has not left for swankier pastures. He wants, he says, to show his neighbors that they can hope to succeed without becoming gangsters, like his boyhood friend turned drug lord, Lucinho (Murilo Benicio).
Just before Carnival, a beautiful girl named Euridice (Patricia Franca) arrives from the countryside and makes Orfeu forget all about his sexy girlfriend, Mira (Isabel Fillardis).
Before they can meet their romantic, and ultimately tragic, fate together, life is complicated by Lucinho's erratic violence and a simmering battle with a corrupt cop, as well as the bitterness of Mira and other former lovers that Orfeu has left behind.
The movie hits a high spot with its fantastic Carnival set piece, when Orfeu leads hundreds of dancers and singers down a broad boulevard lined with singing, cheering fans. The festivities are intercut with scenes of hill dwellers in pitiful shacks watching the parade on television, and of the drugged-out Lucinho stumbling toward the movie's climactic showdown.
As Sellars noted, Brazilians have always rankled at the fact that the sensuous 1959 film version was made by a French director who succumbed to the temptation to idealize -- or, more precisely, sanitize -- the world where Orfeu lived. Diegues made it a point of national pride to film realistic images of the slums, blunt depictions of the endless clash between the poor and the powerful of Rio, as well as ecstatic visions of Carnival. Furthermore, Diegues cast actors who look and sound like they could in fact have grown up in slums.
Outside Brazil, however, some of the movie's indigenous strengths feel more like obstacles. It often seems to cross the line between opera and soap opera. Particularly in the closing reels, scene after scene is played at such a high pitch that the action reads as melodramatic, self-important, and intensely exaggerated (for instance, the scenes of Orfeu's mother extremely overwrought over the disappearance of his son). This would all work just fine in an opera; on film, it's overbearing.
Sellars introduced the film to festival audiences with impassioned plaudits for director Diegues, cinematographer Affonso Beato and the magical culture that gave birth to Carnival. He is right to salute the filmmakers and to celebrate their accomplishment. He may be asking too much to expect this film to teach the world what life in Brazil really means.
[Margaret A. McGurk is film critic at The Cincinnati Enquirer. She has also
written for The Independent Film and Video Monthly.]