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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 25, No. 1. 1962.

The Masque of the Black Death

The Masque of the Black Death

Apparently Orfeu Negro is a Nouvelle Vague film; if it is, it is the first to reach us. It is a reworking of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in Rio De Janeiro, amongst the inhabitants of the negro poor quarter at the time of the Carnival. Orpheus is a guitar playing tram driver, engaged to Mira, a hot-blooded woman given to wearing low cut dresses, who is jealous of his wandering eyes. Eurydice is a country girl who comes to Rio to escape the attentions of a persistent and ominous suitor.

When Orpheus meets Eurydice they fall immediately in love and enjoy a few moments of brief happiness during the carnival before Eurydice's pursuer menaces her again and drives her to seek refuge in the tram shed. When Orpheus comes looking for her he is indirectly responsible for her death. There follows for him a period of stunned shock in which he refuses to believe that she is dead and seeks for her through the hospital, the Bureau of Missing Persons and at a hysterical religious meeting. When he finds her at last she is in the morgue. He takes her body to listen to, the sleeve is colourful back home but is attacked by Mira and falls, with the corpse, over the cliff to his death.

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One disadvantage of doing a modern version of an old classic is that the translation from old to new in all details is liable to get out of hand and become ludicrous. Thus we accept that Orpheus' lute should become a guitar, but when a dog guarding the entrance to the religious meeting is addressed "Down, Cerberus!" one feels just a bit too over-amused. One watches the film in the same way as Around the World in 80 Days; instead of identifying Mars, one tries to pick all the parallels with the original legend and see if they have been transformed or preserved.

This is bad enough, but on top of that, there is this supersaturation with carnival music and colour. There is no let-up from the throbbing and raucous soundtrack and the innumerable shots of fancy-dressed dancers cavorting around as though but by an epidemic of the Dancing Plague. It becomes boring—as though the director (Marcel Camus), realising just how threadbare the bare bones of his theme were, missing as it does the poetry in the treatment of the original, tried to distract our attention with a lot of travelogue footage. Practically every sequence devoted to the tourist stuff is unnecessary to the action and development and the scenes of semi-hysterical, heavily sweating and over-dressed dancers eventually become repulsive.

The acting is all on the overtly extravert level; I wonder if the director was trying to get across the conception of the happy and innocent native—the noble savage and his closeness to the "basic" emotions of human existence and all the rest in that particular anthology of cliches. As to the personification of Death as a masquerader in the carnival, I find this the hardest to swallow of all the glaring artificialities riddling the film. The arrival of Eurydice in Rio and her meeting with a blind peddlar is a source of the first cliche. He tells her that he can feel her heart beating like a captive bird (now there's a new thought for you!) and so for the first half of the film we have recurrent images of caged birds, designed to press some point home (but what, exactly?).