Archive for March, 2017

Last Saturday, I viewed the classic, 1959 film “Black Orpheus” on Netflix. I was only seven years old when the Oscar-winning film first premiered, but I clearly remember going to see it with my parents. The hypnotic drum-beats and the vivid images of colorful Carnaval costumes and vertiginous, breath-taking vistas from favelas high atop the mountains of Rio de Janeiro stayed with me across the decades, so that the film looked familiar on re-viewing. What I had forgotten were the specifics of how the movie brilliantly re-tells the bare-bones Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in that riotous samba setting.

First, it has to be acknowledged that the simplicity of the black characters, and the simple delight they take in Carnaval, have been identified as racist portrayals by no less an authority than President Obama, who mentions in “Dream of my Fathers” that “Black Orpheus” was his mother’s favorite movie. That said, though, in my view the characters’ simple outlines well serve the mythological context of the story. It is a stripped-down fairytale of love and death that is both a universal human myth, and a story that could be re-told in the context of almost any century or set of people. Director Marcel Camus’ decision to cast it as a tale of Rio’s Carnaval was a stroke of genius, and the imagery he generates to tell it is some of the most evocative that I have seen in any film.

Orpheus is portrayed as a tram conductor and Eurydice as a villager who has come to Rio by ferry to escape a vengeful lover who she fears will kill her. Where better to lose a pursuer than in the masked madness of Carnaval? Where this highly period and place-specific retelling really soars, though, is in the director’s decision to have Orpheus unintentionally kill Eurydice, just as he’s trying desperately to save her. This is an insightful variation of the original story, in which Eurydice is killed by snakes:   insightful specifically in that it highlights the power of anxiety and fear to cause people so often to harm or even accidentally kill the ones they love the most.

But it is the way the film contrasts the bright revelry and hypnotic beats of Carnaval, symbolizing the life force, with Eurydice’s journey into the underworld and Orpheus’ deep grief, that impressed me the most. After Eurydice is killed, her body is transported by ambulance through a deep, dark highway tunnel that I recognized from my 2009 visit to Rio de Janeiro as a tunnel I had ridden through in a taxi, deep under the Corcovado mountain. Orpheus follows her body to the “Office of Missing Persons” and the morgue, where a janitor tells him that he will find nothing in the building but dusty old files.

After he finds her body and her death is confirmed, he and the janitor descend a magnificent oval staircase that appears to burrow deep down into the earth (although the viewer recollects that Orpheus had previously taken an elevator up to the morgue.) Once they arrive at the lowest level, Orpheus is brought into a secret ritual of the Macumba Afro-Cuban religion, where men and women dance, whirl and speak in tongues. The janitor tells Orpheus to sing to Eurydice; when he finally does, he hears her voice answer him in response. Then, fatefully, Orpheus turns to see that the voice is emanating from an old lady who, in a trance, appears to be serving as a medium. As we all know, that backward glance separates Orpheus from Eurydice forever, within this life.

Leaving the church, Orpheus carries the inert body of Eurydice back up the steep hill to his favela. There in a jealous rage, Orpheus’ fiancé, Mira, flings a stone at Orpheus, sending him crashing over the cliff to his death, still bearing the body of Eurydice. It is abundantly clear that only in death could he and Eurydice be re-united.

What remains for all of us is the lament of the timeless and haunting Antonio Carlos Jobim song, “O Felicidade,” (“Happiness”) which Orpheus has sung to Eurydice on his guitar repeatedly throughout the film. His guitar is supposed to have the power to bring the sun up in the morning, on Ash Wednesday.



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Recently, having attended a concert devoted to the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim at Seattle’s Columbia City Theater, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, I posted about the transformative quality of his lovely bossa novas. Each simple and haunting tune nails itself into one’s head, where it cannot escape until you play another of his songs. These subtle melodies, married to the timeless lyrics of Vinicius de Moraes and others, have a wistful quality that evokes the inseparable intertwining of happiness and sadness in our lives. While the melodies seem quietly joyous, the lyrics speak longingly of the transient quality of happiness. The girl from Ipanema never sees you, and in the song “Corcovado,” “quiet chords from my guitar (are) floating on the silence that surrounds us.”


Nowhere is this more true than in the lyrics to “A Felicidade,” (“Happiness”):


Sadness never ends

Happiness does


Happiness is like a drop

of dew on a flower petal

It shines quietly

And then swings lightly

and falls like a love tear drop


This lyric, with its accompanying guitar melody, was enlisted as the theme song for the classic film, “Black Orpheus,” from 1959. Orpheus sings it almost as a lullaby to his beloved Eurydice, who is running away from death, in this brilliant re-telling of the Greek myth, set to the samba beats of Carnaval:


Happiness of the poor seems

The great illusion of Carnival

We work all year

For a dream moment

To make the fantasy

Of king or pirate or gardener

For everything is finished in (Ash) Wednesday


Here, in the metaphor of the lively night of Carnaval giving way to the cold dawn of Lent, we have the promise and fragility of romantic love contrasted with the stark certainty of death. Eurydice will die before the coming of dawn, unless Orpheus can save her. Ironically, in the movie he kills her by trying to save her from Death. She is hanging from an electric wire in a tram station, to which she has leapt after being cornered in the station by the Carnaval figure of death, in a skull mask. In an attempt to find her and save her, Orpheus turns the power on, instantly electrocuting her. Orpheus’ immediate and stabbing grief speaks to the universality of human suffering and the transient, elusive quality of happiness, themes which Buddhism addresses directly in its call for compassion for all sentient beings.


The lyrics to “A Felicidade” remind me so much of another poetic song with a Buddhist theme: “Everything Must Change; Nothing Stays the Same,” recorded by both George Benson and Randy Crawford. In both songs, the listener is brought back to the present moment by reflecting on the impermanence of all phenomena and beings. As the latter song reminds us, “There are not many things in Life you can be sure of/ Except rain comes from the clouds; sun lights up the sky; and hummingbirds do fly.”





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