Black Orpheus Sambas onto DVD

Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn, Lourdes de Oliveira, Lea Garcia. Directed by Marcel Camus. Aspect ratio: 1.33:1 (widescreen). Dolby Digital 2.0 (mono). 107 minutes. 1959/1999. Criterion Collection 48. NR. $20.96.

Black Orpheus recasts the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. Against a backdrop of round-the-clock samba (and a beautiful score by Luis Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim), Orpheus, a streetcar conductor, courts Eurydice, a country girl, then loses her to Death, and sets off to the underworld (Rio's Bureau of Missing Persons) to win her back. Black Orpheus is rightly regarded as a classic film for its ability to retell an old tale in a lyrical and awe-inspiring fashion. It makes the old new again.

It does this partially by setting the tale in exotic Rio, where Macumba ceremonies take place just down the street from skyscrapers. It also makes the most of its cast—primarily non-actors who bring passion and freshness to their roles. And it lingers in our memories because of the haunting music Bonfa and Jobim composed for the film—"Manha de Carnival" and "O Nossa Amor" obviously touched a chord the world over, and helped create the whole samba craze of the early '60s.

Criterion has done right by this classic. The colors, which had gotten pretty faded on the last several prints I saw in theaters, have been lovingly restored—Criterion credits a telecine colorist and an "additional color correction" technician. The DVD fairly crackles with bright, sunlit color—and, later in the film, deep, dark shadows. The soundtrack doesn't fare quite as well. Contemporary moviegoers, used to multitrack digital, may find its dated sound somewhat stodgy. Even so, after about 15 minutes, the relentless beat of the samba bands playing all over the Rio cityscape will have your feet tapping and your hips moving. It's a heady soundtrack.

Criterion bills this as the "uncut" version, and claims to have restored four minutes of previously unseen footage—I believe them, but the additions are not obvious. Nice to have them back, I guess. It also includes an interesting French trailer for the film, narrated by Orpheus' guitar. I got a kick out of that.

Forty years after its initial release, Black Orpheus still has the power to move, to make us care about a story as old as civilization. I find that comforting.

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