Among the pagan myths, none had a larger echo in Christian culture than the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus was a musician and poet who could move not only human beings but even rocks and trees. These powers were clearly a symbol of art’s capacity to order the world and reveal the beauty in creation, to which we are usually blind. And the most remarkable part of the Orpheus myth—that he descended into the afterworld to try to retrieve his dead love, Eurydice—had powerful resonances with the Christian story.
Western artists made good use of this fable of love stronger than death. Monteverdi’s Orfeo is one of the great early operas, and other composers such as Gluck and Stravinsky put it to more modern uses. The great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a series of Sonnets to Orpheus and another heartrending poem about Orpheus’s descent into hell and failure to win back Eurydice when, out of fear and impatience, he turned back to look for her, violating the condition that the gods of the underworld imposed on him for her redemption. The Orpheus story found its way into more popular arts as well. The French writer Jean Cocteau filmed a version of Orpheus that, despite its clumsiness, conveyed some of the pathos of the artist who can do so much but cannot command fate.
But perhaps the most popular modern version of the story was a sweetly melancholic 1959 Brazilian film, Black Orpheus, in which “Orfeu” is a Rio tram driver from one of the favelas (shantytowns), who every year leads the music and dancing of his samba school in Carnival. Eurydice arrives from a small town in Brazil’s impoverished Northeast. They fall in love, but Eurydice is being pursued by a figure in a skeleton costume—whether it is a simple stalker from back home or death personified is never made clear. In any case, when she is killed during Carnival, Orfeu passes into the other world during a candomble ritual, a hybrid of African and Brazilian religion.
The film was perfect. Poor people in Latin countries often take grandiose mythological names. The two main actors had an innocence that made the simple story believable. And then there was the music and the fabulous Rio setting. Several of the most memorable tunes were written by Antonio Carlos Jobim, with lyrics by the great Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes. The latter also wrote the play on which the film was based. Other great Brazilian musicians contributed unforgettable ballads. Luiz Bonfa’s Morning of Carnival, for instance, was so gentle and melancholy that it made Orfeu’s claim (to favela children) that his music causes the sun to rise over the quiet beauty of Rio believable. Though a Frenchman, Marcel Camus (no relation to the writer), directed the film, it seemed a flawless combination of Brazilian exoticism and Greek myth.
Brazilian director Carlos Diegues set himself an impossible task, then, in his remake and update of a film classic. Like all such remakes, it suffers in comparison with the original at every point. Tony Garrido, the new Orfeu, was a pop star before he was cast in the role. Patricia Franca (Eurydice) was a Brazilian television and film star. Where the old chemistry between the two was innocent and tender, the new version shows them mostly self- absorbed and ironic. Orfeu is promiscuous from the opening scene, and though he proclaims his love, we are not convinced. He spends most of his time in his room, which is full of electric guitars, cell phones, and computers programmed to score his compositions. Today’s favelas, despite appearances, usually have refrigerators, televisions, and other amenities. But this Orpheus lives a bit too much like a college student to sustain the myth.
Eurydice is a little more believable. She is from Acre, an area so remote that it’s on the other side of the Amazon region. When Orpheu asks where she learned how to kiss, she explains “from TV soap operas,” which now penetrate even the remotest parts of the world. Yet the actress’s skills are such that something more than the globalized electronic culture remains in her character. She’s vulnerable and pleasingly overwhelmed by many things about Rio.
But what she is vulnerable to is nothing very much: a drug kingpin in the favela. He’s an old school friend of Orpheu and is clearly uncomfortable in the role life has dealt him. During a bit of intimidation as Carnival is unfolding, he fires a warning shot at the ground. Unluckily, Eurydice is hit by the ricochet. He wants to take her to a hospital, but his less-conflicted henchmen counsel throwing her body over a cliff. When Orpheu gets wind of this, he descends into this hellish place where many bodies have been disposed of. Snakes crawl around freely. He emerges with her body, only to be killed by a jealous ex who can’t bear watching his sorrow over Eurydice.
By that point, the viewer, too, can hardly bear any more. The whole myth has been so muted that it might have been better not to burden the film with it at all. The director claims he wanted to paint a modern Rio where it is “easy to identify injustice, but very hard to differentiate good from evil and to draw the line between them.” This is nonsense on stilts, as a great natural law proponent once remarked. The whole power of the Orpheus myth— and of the earlier Black Orpheus—lay in the recognition that, whatever the reasons for Eurydice’s death (in Ovid’s version, she’s bitten by a snake), death’s intervention between lovers is part and parcel of the human condition. The new Orfeu loses that constant of human experience and only manages a cliched social commentary.
Oddly, the film emphasizes something missing in the earlier version: the religiosity of modern Rio. Orfeu points to the famous Christ on Corcovado overlooking the city and tells Eurydice he put it there so that, if she is lost, she only has to head for the spot underneath the right armpit. When she, in fact, loses her way, she finds it again after blessing herself and looking at an old painting of the Virgin Mary. Also, one of the occupants of Orfeu’s house is a born-again Christian who tells Eurydice how God took the evil out of his heart and made him a new man. Orfeu’s mother believes in the African gods (orixas) and fears that God is jealous of Orpheus’s music, a rare representation of the superstitious side of syncretistic beliefs. But these realistic touches, much as they reflect current Brazilian society, never amount to anything thematically.
Even the new music falters. Caetano Veloso, a great contemporary Brazilian singer-songwriter, wisely advised the director that the old songs could not be surpassed and only undertook one new ballad and a samba. These have charms, but the film raised controversy in Brazil because Orfeu’s songs in Carnival contained rap passages. Some Brazilians claimed this was unrealistic, and a policeman in the film chastises Orfeu for bringing in music that had nothing to do with Carnival.
But in the end, it is not these blemishes singly or together that produced failure. It is the loss of the mythological framework that told us of the perennial struggles of love and death. In the final scene, the bodies of the two lovers lie in an open space of the favela while the living stand around, not knowing what to do. Unfortunately, the director himself did not know what to do with such large themes. It may have only been a personal failure of talent, but with so many resources at hand, it may also reflect a certain superficiality that we find hard to escape now, whether we are dealing with pagan or Christian stories.