Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Art House in the Middle of the Street #13: Black Orpheus

There's no grand philosophical project behind Charge Shot!!!'s new feature. Jordasch's mom got him Janus Films' absolutely untouchable Essential Art House box set, and he's going to watch the whole thing. It's a behemoth set, collecting 50 films released since 1956 by one of the first distributors to bring honest-to-goodness world cinema to U.S. shores. The films contained in the collection serve as a crash course in world cinema, encompassing everything from major works of the French New Wave and the Italian Neorealist period to films from lesser-known corners of the filmmaking world, including Brazil and Poland. The collection is 50 discs, weighs 16 pounds, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses. Hit it.

It had to happen sometime. I knew at a certain point in my journey through the annals of foreign movie history, I'd have to find a movie that I genuinely disliked.

Not that I haven't struggled to make it through certain weeks. Fires on the Plain was trying (and I can't see myself ever wanting to sit through it again), but I admired its gut-punch effectiveness. A war movie, after all, shouldn't be "endlessly watchable."

And Floating Weeds was perhaps the slowest movie I've ever seen, but I came to truly appreciate it (and actually enjoy it) by the end.

I wasn't confident enough at the time to declare that I couldn't stand The Seventh Seal, but I'll say it now: what a bloated, pretentious piece of poop. It had its moments (the parade of the flagellants was great, and I'll admit the danse macabre was truly poetic), but mostly it was formless and in love with the sound of its own insights.

But the time has come, visitors to the Art House. I'm finally ready to say it: I couldn't stand Black Orpheus.

I'll get this out of the way early: the music is absolutely wonderful. I can't declare myself a bossa nova expert, but I do appreciate a good samba. And boy howdy are there some good-ass sambas here. The songs that run throughout the film, by Luiz Bonfá, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and João Gilberto, are stunning, lively, and best of all, subtle. That third virtue is mostly what prevents the film itself from attaining the first virtue.

To be sure, though, French director Marcel Camus wants his movie to be stunning. He crams it so full of dance numbers, sweeping panoramas, and vivid Technicolor compositions that it practically bursts. But rather than the infectious celebration of Brazilian life it'd life to be, Black Orpheus comes off like the party host who keeps asking you if you're having fun. "How's everything going? Doing okay? You want another dance number? Was the last one not long enough?"

True to its name, Black Orpheus is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, this time set in the favelas of Brazil's Rio de Janeiro. But this isn't the gritty, lurid Rio of Fernando Meirelles' City of God. No, the Rio of Black Orpheus is about as white-washed and safe as a hotel luau. To call the film's portrayal of the city "toothless" would give you the mistaken impression that it tried to bite you in the first place.

Eurydice (the gorgeous Marpessa Dawn) is a recent émigré to Rio. She's fled her hometown because she believes that Death is pursuing her. Her inaugural trip through the streets of the city is the first indication that the movie has its head in the clouds. The kinetic, vaguely spastic dancing is captivating at first, but Camus just keeps rolling...and rolling and rolling and rolling. Until you realize you've been watching what feels like half an hour of dancing with just a speck of story.

Eventually, though, Eurydice makes her way to the home of her sister (Léa Garcia), where she promptly falls for the rakishly handsome Orpheus (Breno Mello). Orpheus is engaged to Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), a jealous harpy with huge, um, tracts of land.

On the surface, it all seems fine: Orpheus plays some of those gorgeous songs for Eurydice, who fawns like it's her job. And then, of course, some people dance.

Could you put me in a less offensively-named movie?
But the surface is really all you get in Black Orpheus. Critics of the film have lambasted it for its cultural imperialism, but I see that as a symptom rather than the problem itself. Sure, Camus' portrait of Brazilians as smiling, wafer-thin caricatures is offensive, but there's no depth to be found anywhere in the rest of the film. Camus is so focused on enticing us to hit his brightly-colored piñata that he forgets to put anything in it. Consequently, his characters come across as broadly-drawn, somewhat hysterical schizophrenics, vacillating from murderous anger to rapturous delight without so much as a moment to reflect. It's disorienting and, frankly, amateurish.

Most of all, Black Orpheus is a film that you just want to shut the fuck up. Camus can't go five seconds without piping in an "infectious" samba tune or cutting to yet another dance sequence. There's an actually touching moment late in the film where a heartbroken Orpheus goes to the morgue to visit Eurydice (sorry, spoilers just don't apply to Greek myths). Anyway, though, there's another character in the scene who just won't shut up while Orpheus shares a tragic moment with his beloved. I actually found myself cursing at my TV.

The film has precious few of these quiet moments, and they're almost always interrupted by Camus' desperate need to cram more crap into his already crowded movie. In its clowning, constantly distracted aesthetic, Black Orpheus couldn't help but remind me of bad movie night mainstay Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. Granted, it's not quite that subterranean in its crapitude. But it's certainly the worst thing I've run across in Janus' otherwise excellent set.

Next Week - Black Hamlet! (just kidding; it's Fritz Lang's M)

- Photos courtesy of Movie Goods and 5th Avenue Cinema