3½ stars (out of four)
"Black Orpheus" is a film that art-house audiences in 1959 loved madly. And who can blame them? A buoyant, searingly colorful retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth set in Rio de Janiero, writer-director's Marcel Camus' movie is a romance heightened by its backdrop. It's played against one of the world's great fiestas, the Rio Carnaval, with its elaborate floats and costumes, pulsing music and wild dancing and revelry.
In this version, Orpheus (Breno Mello) is a young streetcar driver, Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) a country girl, new to the city. Over everything floats one of the great movie scores, by two Brazilian musicians almost unknown at the time but soon to make their country's melodies world-famous: Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa. Jobim and Bonfa help concoct a wondrous samba dream, but it's an idyll laced with death and classical legend. As in the myth (and in the earlier 1950 French film classic "Orpheus" by Jean Cocteau), this Orpheus has to travel to Hell to try to save his lost, dead love.
Adapted from the famous play by Vinicius de Moraes, Camus' "Orpheus" was shot in the Rio streets and in the shantytown on the hills above. Glorious travelogue, vibrant musical and heart-rending romance, it's also one of the ultimate art film examples of a pop music phenomenon: the one-hit wonder. Beautiful amateurs Mello and Dawn never went on to great careers. And though Camus, an ex-assistant to Jacques Becker and Luis Bunuel, making only his second feature (at 47), worked steadily in films and TV from 1959 until his death in 1982, he never again had a critical or popular hit that even approached "Black Orpheus." His later films rarely even came to America.
Jobim and Bonfa, of course, went on to strings of hits. Jobim--who wrote "Desafinado" shortly before "Black Orpheus"--conquered the international pop music world through the '60s and '70s, becoming a kind of Latin American equivalent of Cole Porter, George Gershwin or the Beatles. Perhaps that's where the real secret of "Black Orpheus" lies. It's a strong film, well-crafted, filled with visual beauty. But would we love it as much without Jobim and Bonfa? Their music explodes from the very first scene, when a bas-relief of the legendary lovers is burst open like a balloon and the theater starts to swell with the samba beat. "Black Orpheus" is one of the great musicals--and it doesn't matter in the end that Camus never made another like it. One was enough.
(In Portuguese, with English subtitles.) In a new 35 mm print, plays through Thursday at various times at the Music Box Theatre, 3733N. Southport Ave., 773-871-6604, wwwmusicboxtheatre.com. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for mature themes of sensuality and death).Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times