Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Classic review of Brazilian Film "Orfeu"

New York Times

August 20, 2000

An Orpheus, Rising From Caricature

Zeca Guimaraes/ New Yorker Films (top), Lopert Films (center), The Associated Press (bottom)
Toni Garrido and Patricia Franca in the Brazilian film "Orfeu," which has its American theatrical premiere on Friday, top. Marpressa Dawn and Bruno Mello in Marcel Camus's 1959 film "Black Orpheus," center. Caetano Veloso, bottom.
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RIO DE JANEIRO -- In 1956, Vinicius de Moraes's play "Orfeu da Conceição" opened here, and the enthusiastic audiences that filled every theater in the country in which the play was staged reflected perfectly the significance and implications of the event.

At that moment, de Moraes and Antonio Carlos Jobim were coming together in a first, decisive step toward bringing about the quiet revolution in samba that became known as bossa nova; for the first time in Brazil, a stage play had an all-black cast; and the play itself, by transposing to Rio's slums at Carnival time the Orpheus myth of a musician who loses his great love, was a defining moment in the very Brazilian project of making samba the medium of choice for expressing national identity.

Three years later, "Black Orpheus," the film by the French director Marcel Camus that was based on the play, enthralled non-Brazilians and went on to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes and the Oscar for best foreign film. To say that the film was received without enthusiasm in Brazil is an understatement. The contrast between the fascination that "Black Orpheus" generated abroad and the contempt with which it was treated by Brazilians, who saw themselves depicted as exotics, invites thoughts on the loneliness of Brazil. Now there is a new film, "Orfeu," inspired by the play. That it was produced and directed by Brazilians only breathes new life into the discussion. ("Orfeu" will have its American premiere on Friday in the New York area and will open in other cities in the United States over the next few months.)

Last October, the musician and record producer David Byrne wrote in The New York Times of his disdain for the term "world music." His essay warned of the dangers of those in rich countries feeling entitled to judge the authenticity of art from poor countries. In that sense, "Black Orpheus" is almost a caricature. We Brazilians are frequently accused of being inauthentic because we don't look enough like whatever foreigners saw in that film. The fact that Brazilians thoroughly reject the Camus film has been hard for foreigners to accept. The huge popular success that the new "Orfeu," directed by Carlos Diegues, met in Brazil last year brings the debate to a deeper level.

I don't intend to judge the two films. In my youth I was a film critic for a small provincial paper, and to resume this activity now would be doubly inopportune: it would force me to narrow my focus to these two films when a broader discussion is called for; and furthermore, as I have composed the score for "Orfeu" and my wife, Paula Lavigne, is its producer, I've become an interested party.

Rather, I believe there is much to gain from a comparison of the two films, not as works of art but from the point of view of the different reactions they have produced.

Watching "Orfeu" and "Black Orpheus" again, I was moved by how right de Moraes had been in conceiving his play. Indeed, he unveiled Brazil as an Orphean country, a country that expresses its soul's sweetly tragic aspects through music.

Almost unconsciously, Camus's film, with its unreality and naïveté, manages to connect with this essential truth. Beyond what had initially struck me as remarkable in that film -- the actresses Lourdes de Oliveira and Lea Garcia, not to mention the songs, the outrageously fanciful colors (so different from Rio's real ones) and the general "voodoo for tourists" ambiance -- seemed to me now to give the film the dreamlike quality of popular religious iconography, and that touched me.

Yet since the days of tropicália, that brief, rebellious and self-analytical movement of music and visual arts in Brazil that I was part of in the late 60's, I've learned to greet with a mixture of gratitude and concern the way foreigners see us.

In that respect, "Black Orpheus" wasn't much different from Carmen Miranda's phony fruit headdress. It is from this perspective that one can understand why "Black Orpheus" was rejected in Brazil and why I stress the importance for non-Brazilian audiences to open themselves up to the realism of the new film.

A critic from the French newspaper Libération, commenting on "Orfeu," laments that Arto Lindsay (who was co-producer of the soundtrack) had introduced rap music in some sequences. "Diegues doesn't need that," the critic wrote. "He knows how to get melodious music to flow from one scene to another as if it were pouring from the slum's very alleyways." Well, rap is exactly the music that nowadays pours from the alleyways of Rio's slums. Rap is in the film as a documentary element, purposely put there by the director. Melodious music is exactly what would represent the artificial and fictional.

The slums in Rio have changed dramatically since the Camus film opened in 1959. Life there has improved materially, with brick and mortar replacing zinc and cardboard, and cement covering up the alleys' mud. Outlaws who used to break into houses have switched to the more profitable drug trade, building a power base that is fiercely independent of the law, in part because the criminals possess military-style firearms that are vastly superior to those used by the police.

Rap groups made up of slum dwellers have created a style that reflects this atmosphere, with an emphasis on racial confrontation that has no precedent in our popular culture.

This Movement (which is what Brazilian hip-hop artists call the phenomenon) has become a strong advocate of the idea that Brazil is moving toward biracialism while the United States moves toward multiracialism. One rap group, Racionais MC's, is led by a singer who emphasizes being black, and its lyrics are racially radical. It has sold nearly a million copies of its most recent record, supporting sales mainly through live appearances in the slums while refusing to go on the large television networks.

Clearly "Orfeu" was conceived with these very real elements as its background. Is it not possible, then, to see the French critic's complaint about rap in the slums as the same kind of paternalistic distortion described by Mr. Byrne? But the Libération article was only a brief review written by a film critic who doesn't know much about Brazil.

There is, however, something not entirely different in a long article by the historian Kenneth Maxwell, published last year with great fanfare in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo. This respected Brazilianist, author of several books about our colonial history, says that he became interested in Brazil after seeing "Black Orpheus" in the early 60's while a student at Cambridge Univeristy.

After seeing "Orfeu" in São Paulo recently, he proclaimed his astonishment at a scene in which a "middle-class white man" is executed by a group of "predominantly black" drug traffickers; then he adds his disappointment in seeing Orfeu sporting his hair in dreadlocks; and finally he is skeptical about the woolen cap worn by the film's drug lord, something, he says, is "more appropriate to the Chicago cold than to Rio's warm weather."

Well, the guy the drug traffickers execute is a slum dweller just like them, a point made abundantly clear in the scene's dialogue; dreadlocks are almost as common in Brazil as they are in Jamaica, and they have been worn for a long time by Toni Garrido, the singer-actor who portrays Orfeu in the film; and finally everybody who lives in Rio knows that it is rare to find a slum drug lord who doesn't wear a woolen cap.

To what should we credit this willful show of ignorance of daily life in Brazil by a scholar dedicated to a country he frequently visits? Mr. Maxwell himself offers an answer when he says that, being a fan of "Black Orpheus," he had to accept that Brazilians might brush aside Camus's film as "exotica for tourists." As time went by, however, he came to the conclusion that this reaction against the film by "Brazil's middle class" was similar to that of Bahia's police in the 30's, arresting tourists who were caught photographing "nonwhite children" in Salvador's streets and confiscating their film.

In both cases, he argued, one could see the horror that Brazilians experienced in being perceived as blacks by foreigners.

While mistaken, Mr. Maxwell's reading of Brazil's reaction to the film as an effort to conceal our blackness isn't a fantasy hatched in a vacuum. Consider the press release, written by Brazilians, that accompanied the opening of the film in Rio. "In a country like Brazil," it says, "with a population of 65 million people, of which 20 million are black, the idea of making this film was deemed strange by many of its 45 million whites."

Mr. Maxwell, however, seems to ignore that, first, the play, staged by an all-black cast, wasn't met with such aversion. Quite the opposite. Second, de Moraes, who had insisted on the all-black cast, hated the film so much that he left the theater halfway through the screening, shouting that his Orpheus had been "disfigured." It would be illogical to attribute his reaction to negrophobia. And, third, the play's enormous success created a positive expectation for the film, one of optimism and excitement. The fact that "Black Orpheus" had been crowned in glory in Europe filled Brazilians with pride and hope. And, of course, everybody knew that the film had an all-black cast. How can we attribute the disappointment to racial prejudice?

An anecdote about Mr. Diegues, however, sheds light on the issue. In the mid-70's he made a film about the legendary Chica da Silva, a black slave who in the 18th century became a powerful lady in central Brazil's diamond industry.

While negotiating the film's release with a major Brazilian distributor, Mr. Diegues heard him say that, although he had loved the film, he planned to show it only in a very small theater because "Brazilian audiences don't like films with blacks." But Mr. Diegues convinced him to give the film wider distribution.

"Xica da Silva" became one of the biggest commercial successes in the history of Brazilian cinema.

The distributor's reservations about the tastes of Brazilian audiences echoed the concerns about "Black Orpheus" expressed in the press release.

Both reflect a prejudice that neither seems willing to admit but instead attributes to the audience. It's not absurd to imagine that the distributor had vivid memories of the resounding failure of "Black Orpheus" in Brazil and interpreted that failure along the lines of Mr. Maxwell's point of view.

The box office proved the distributor wrong. But that success did not prove that there is no racism in Brazil, then or now, contrary to the popularly held belief that it is a racial democracy. Instead, the contradiction between such success and the distributor's expectations exposes the anxieties of foreigners and Brazilians alike when it comes to dealing with the problem of race in Brazil. This anxiety is, in fact, a theme crucial to any sort of self-knowledge throughout the Americas.

I frequently see surprise -- and sometimes a strange pleasure -- in the eyes of people who find evidence of racism among Brazilians. But I'm always astonished that these flashes can provoke such naïve surprise.

Is it possible that anybody would really believe that there was someplace in the New World where the sins of the brutal enslavement of Africans would have miraculously vanished?

Everywhere in the Americas, however, our basic humanity has found ways to assert itself, precariously but insistently, over the racist theories that supported these brutal practices.

And none of us have the right to throw away what has been achieved in the process. The Brazilian experience must be enriched by the criticism of the racial democracy myth, not invalidated by it.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Europeans were afraid to invest in Brazil for fear of "the tropics' insalubrity." In his book "Black Into White," Thomas Skidmore, an American who has written extensively on Brazilian history, tells of a Brazilian author who wrote a book in 1891 in French to be published in Europe as a propaganda effort. In it, the author complains bitterly that until then his French friends "knew only that there were apes and Negros in Brazil -- and half a dozen whites of dubious color." The Brazilian dream of "whitening" European immigration would then be an effort to create an acceptable nation.

When the noted Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre published his book, "The Masters and the Slaves," in the 30's, the judgment of people of mixed color went from negative to positive, helping create a euphoric self-image for Brazilians.

The term racial democracy became an appropriate label for this euphoria. It also became the obsessive target for acerbic criticism from social scientists and political militants.

In his 1994 book "Orpheus and Power: The Movimento Negro of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil, 1945-1988," an interpretation of the relatively unsuccessful Brazilian black consciousness movement, the black American political scientist Michael Hanchard, not surprisingly, condemns the idea of racial democracy.

He wants us to believe that our supposed multiracialism has hindered the effort by Brazilian blacks to solve their problems. Many black militants here agree with him. These militants seem to advocate the old American "one drop of blood" principle as a way to unravel the black issue in Brazil.

But the "whitening" process can, quite frankly, be thought of as an inevitable dream of all the Americas.

Witness Ella Fitzgerald's blond wigs, Tina Turner's and Whitney Houston's bleached hair and the sphinxlike Michael Jackson.

Freyre's book, on the other hand, rejected the colonial presumptions of whitening while praising miscegenation. To say, as Mr. Hanchard and others do, that such praise is but a veiled form of whitening is to give way to a simplification that leads to racial intolerance.

Critics like Mr. Maxwell used race to explain the negative reaction to "Black Orpheus." To me, however, that reaction was more a result of a national anguish over cinema than over race. In the 50's, the multiracial middle class to which I belong was much more ashamed of our cinema than of our blacks: to hear Brazilians in the movie utter dialogue that was unconvincing and irrelevant to the narrative was a torment.

There were other inconsistencies: voices with Southern accents dubbed for those of Rio rogues, samba school divisions dancing four times faster than the music being played (which, by the way, is comprised of careless montages of assorted drumming patterns that jump crudely from one time signature to another), the procession of a parade to the sound of a samba entirely different from real "sambas-enredo," or theme sambas.

In the end we realized that all of this was an artificial device with the sole intention of astonishing those who knew nothing about the city and its people.

Cinema, which could have been a potent symbol of modernity for Brazilians, became instead a source of bitter frustration.

In his article Mr. Maxwell, the historian, accuses us of both fearing to seem archaic and adoring progress. "They have not learned the lesson," he says, without explaining what that lesson is. Maybe what he's saying is that all progress is the perogative of 19th-century Britain and 20th-century United tates.

When "Black Orpheus" was released, the French director Jean-Luc Godard complained that Orpheus was a tramway conductor instead of a fare collector on one of the new mini-buses in Rio; he also protested that Euridice didn't arrive in Rio by plane "in the beautiful Santos Dumont airport, between the ocean and the skyscrapers." I have always thought of that review by Godard as something Brazilians could subscribe to.

It was a reaction against Camus's ways of choosing backward elements to make his film look "poetic." The review also represented Godard's imagining of a movie he might make about Orpheus in Rio, one in which the city's real urban life would provide genuine poetry.

Mr. Diegues's "Orfeu" is a real, realist, very un-Godardian film (although Euridice does arrive in Rio by plane) and maybe, as Mr. Maxwell says, it will not attract the youth of the First World to Brazil.

One might argue that would be all to the good. I don't think so. I'd rather have this discussion between Brazilians and foreigners concerning race, backwardness and national identity go on.

The American scholar Robert Stam, author of the book "Tropical Multiculturalism: A Comparitive History of Race in Brazilian Cinema and Culture," wrote in a recent article: "It would be a serious mistake to see Carlos Diegues's 'Orfeu' as a remake of Marcel Camus's 'Black Orpheus.' The slums, for Diegues, are a place of creativity and injustice." For filmmakers and audiences alike, it is hard to equate injustice and creativity. Brazil, as a place where both co-exist, tries to prove that the effort is worthwhile.

Caetano Veloso is a Brazilian singer and songwriter. This article was translated from the Portuguese by Ana Maria Bahiana.

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