Orpheus Sings

Black Orpheus, by Marcel Camus, is (so I am reliably informed by Criterion's helpful liner notes) a re-telling of the well-known Orpheus myth, set in Rio's famous Carnivale.

I don't know the well-known Orpheus myth, I must confess. But then I've never been to Rio, for all that matters.

I bet David Lynch really likes this film. It doesn't have his trademark creepiness, but it does walk that effortless line between mundane and dreamy where his best films live. By the time the film reaches its climax, the characters have been completely engulfed in their mythic identities, and the whole thing has happened so smoothly, so easily, that you never notice any transition.

And the music doesn't hurt any. There's just no such thing as too much samba. Even as terrible things are happening, the drums and singing and all that keep chugging away. The few quiet moments in the film are striking for their contrast to everything else.

The story is simple enough: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, girl dies, boy dies, children dance happily. What else is there to say? We want to believe, like Orpheus, that our love can defeat all things. We want to believe that if we love strongly enough, and bravely enough, that nothing can ever part us from our beloved.

I'm reminded of the common phrase in the 1001 Nights: "And they lived happily together all the rest of their days until they were dead." Those last four words seem so out place, and yet, they speak so strongly of a truth we cannot afford to ignore: all things end in death.

Orpheus wants to overcome that. When death separates him from his love, he seeks for her all the same. Missing Persons, the police, the hospital... at last he finds her in the morgue, dead as dead can be, but he must take her out, bring her back into the world she has left behind. It does no good, of course, and there is more tragedy, as there always is in these sorts of things.

The children, grieving for the loss of the man they loved, carry on with the important things in life: music, dancing and laughter. The film ends with the image of the children playing music and dancing in the dawn.

Grief comes to us all, this film says to me, but beauty never goes out of the world.