Winner of both the Academy Award for best foreign-language film and the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus (Orfeu negro) brings the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to the twentieth-century madness of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. With its eye-popping photography and ravishing, epochal soundtrack, Black Orpheus was an international cultural event, and it kicked off the bossa nova craze that set hi-fis across America spinning.
Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition for Marcel Camus’ 1959 hit Black Orpheus presents the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this dual-layer disc and presents the image in 1080p/24hz.
The Blu-ray’s video transfer is above and beyond Criterion’s previous DVD edition, which was horrendous in just about every way a transfer can be. The materials were rough, and a little faded (yet it still looked quite bright and colouful,) but that wasn’t the real problem; the digital transfer itself was an absolute disaster, loaded with compression artifacts, pixilation, and you could make out a clear grid, attributing to its blocky look. It was distracting and terrible, and was a surprise considering it was a later DVD release from Criterion, just when they were getting the hand of their transfers.
The new Blu-ray lacks any of these problems, presenting a clean image that looks quite film-like. Grain is present but not heavy, staying very natural throughout. Sharpness and detail is pretty good if not spectacular, though this looks to be more of an issue with the source materials rather than the transfer, with some objects looking a little fuzzy on the edges. And though the original DVD’s colours weren’t terrible in their presentation, this transfer improves drastically on them, most noticeable in the rendering of the reds, which look quite exquisite. Other colours look good but not as lively as I would have expected and there seems to be a warmer yellow tinge to everything (though this could be intentional.)
In all I wasn’t blown away, but in comparison to the original DVD it’s an enormous improvement and is worth the upgrade for those that do own the original DVD.
The film comes with two audio tracks, a lossless linear PCM Portuguese track, and a Dolby Digital 1.0 mono English dub. I didn’t really have a complaint about the tracks found on the original DVD, but there is a bit of an improvement here at least in the Portuguese track. Dialogue and music both sound a little edgy but they both still come off fairly strong and lively, the music especially having some nice range and volume to it.
I couldn’t detect a real improvement with the English track in comparison to the DVD, but again it can sound edgy. Music sounds okay, but is much sharper and cleaner in the Portuguese track. The English dubbing is also fairly obvious and doesn’t sound at all natural to the film.
Criterion packs in some supplements for this release, instantly trumping the original DVD which only contained the theatrical trailer.
First are some archival interviews, the first one being an interview from the 1959 Cannes Film Festival with Marcel Camus. It’s brief, at just over 3-minutes, but he quickly covers what it’s like to shoot in Brazil, which barely has a film industry. The following interview is another short one, running 5-minutes, with actress/dancer Marpessa Dawn (Eurydice) from 1963 for French television. Looking absolutely lovely, if a little reserved and shy, Dawn talks a little about Black Orpheus and her career since then, and even talks a little about the idea of being a “star” and what the word means to her. I wish it was longer, and she can seem a little nervous, but it’s a nice interview.
Revisiting Black Orpheus may be the most intriguing supplement to be found on here. At 16-minutes it presents film historian Robert Stam addressing some of the criticisms against the film. Stam admits to liking the film when it was originally released, though has come to recognize the flaws since, particularly in its presentation of the “favelas” or “shanty towns” in the film, bringing up some of the criticisms brought upon it by French New Wave filmmakers and director Glauber Rocha. I find the film fun (and I guess I’ve always treated it as a fantasy so I never took its presentation of the slums or the people living there seriously) so I found this segment a little cruel but I’m always happy to see critical pieces like this and Stam has a lot of interesting material to cover.
The next piece, called Black Orpheus and That Bossa Nova Sound!, runs 18-minutes and features Jazz historian Gary Giddens and author Ruy Castro (both recorded separately) who both talk about the film briefly (Castro being a little critical of it) and then move on to the history of Bossa Nova, including its birth and first appearance, and the film’s part in making it popular in North America. Excellent little history piece, worth viewing for those interested in Bossa Nova and the music that appears in the film.
The big feature, though possibly the most disappointing one, is the 88-minute documentary Looking for Black Orpheus. The documentary gathers together some people involved with the original production, including Breno Mello (who played Orfeu) and looks at some of the areas where the film was shot, and also examines many areas in Rio de Janeiro like the favelas or the neighbourhood known as Lapa (described as an important area for the “art and deviant element.”) Criticisms are again brought up about the film, leading to current films made in Brazil, including City of God and the quasi-remake of Black Orpheus, Orfeu, directed by Carlos Diegues in 1999. The country’s music gets some coverage, which includes an interview with Seu Jorge, and the last little bit deals with the racial prejudices that exist in the country, that Mello seems to suggest is more prominent today, and then Carnival. Though the film is mentioned and referenced plenty of times, as is the play on which its based (including confirmation that the play’s writer, Vinicius de Moraes, hated the film) the documentary is not so much about the making of Black Orpheus, but more about its presentation of the country, and the actual reality then and now. It’s a decent documentary, though it rambles a little and doesn’t always feel to have a focus. But it does offer an intriguing look at Rio de Janeiro, the favelas, the music, and Carnival.
The disc then closes with the film’s theatrical trailer. It’s basically the same trailer as the one on the original DVD, but the DVD’s was in French and the one found here is in Portuguese.
The booklet includes an essay by Michael Atkinson, which does feel to be defending the film. Criterion has also chosen not to carry over David Ehrenstein’s essay from the original DVD.
Not a wholly satisfying collection of supplements because of a documentary I found to be a bit scattershot but it’s certainly an improvement over the barebones edition.
Even if it leaves a little to be desired it’s a quality edition and a definite improvement over the previous edition in terms of its transfer and its supplemental materials. Admirers of the film, and those that own the previous DVD, will absolutely want to pick it up as this is the best I’ve yet seen the film.