Black Orpheus
Original poster
PortugueseOrfeu Negro
Directed byMarcel Camus
Screenplay by
Based onOrfeu da Conceição
by Vinicius de Moraes
Produced bySacha Gordine
CinematographyJean Bourgoin
Edited byAndrée Feix
Music by
  • Dispat Films (France)
  • Gemma (Italy)
  • Tupan Filmes (Brazil)
Distributed byLopert Pictures
Release date
  • 12 June 1959 (1959-06-12) (France)
Running time
107 minutes
  • Brazil
  • France
  • Italy
Box officeUS$750,000[1]

Black Orpheus (Portuguese: Orfeu Negro [ɔɾˈfew ˈneɣɾu]) is a 1959 romantic tragedy[2][3][4][5] film directed by French filmmaker Marcel Camus, and starring Marpessa Dawn and Breno Mello. It is based on the play Orfeu da Conceição by Vinicius de Moraes, which set the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice in a contemporary favela in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval. The film was an international co-production among companies in Brazil, France and Italy.

The film is particularly noted for its soundtrack by two Brazilian composers: Antônio Carlos Jobim, whose song "A felicidade" opens the film; and Luiz Bonfá, whose "Manhã de Carnaval" and "Samba de Orfeu" have become classics of bossa nova. The songs performed by Orfeu were dubbed by singer Agostinho dos Santos.[6] Lengthy passages of filming took place in the Morro da Babilônia, a favela in the Leme neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro.[7][8]

Black Orpheus won the Palme d'Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival,[9] the 1960 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film,[10] the 1960 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film and was nominated for the 1961 BAFTA Award for Best Film.

While the 1959 adaptation has been celebrated internationally, it has been criticized by Brazilians and scholars for exoticizing Brazil for an international audience and reinforcing harmful stereotypes.[11][12]


A marble Greek bas relief explodes, revealing Afro-Brazilian men dancing the samba to drums in a favela. Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) arrives in Rio de Janeiro and takes a trolley driven by Orfeu (Breno Mello). New to the city, she rides to the end of the line, where Orfeu introduces her to the station guard, Hermes (Alexandro Constantino), who gives her directions to the home of her cousin Serafina (Léa Garcia).

Although engaged to Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), Orfeu is not very enthusiastic about the upcoming marriage. The couple goes to get a marriage license. When the clerk at the courthouse hears Orfeu's name, he jokingly asks if Mira is Eurydice, annoying her. Afterward, Mira insists on getting an engagement ring. Though Orfeu has just been paid, he would rather use his money to get his guitar out of the pawn shop for Carnival. Mira finally offers to loan Orfeu the money to buy her ring.

When Orfeu goes home, he is pleased to find Eurydice staying next door with Serafina. Eurydice has run away to Rio to hide from a strange man whom she believes wants to kill her. The man – Death dressed in a stylized skeleton costume – finds her, but Orfeu gallantly chases him away. Orfeu and Eurydice fall in love, yet are constantly on the run from both Mira and Death. When Serafina's sailor boyfriend Chico (Waldemar De Souza) shows up, Orfeu offers to let Eurydice sleep in his home, while he takes the hammock outside. Eurydice invites him to her bed, and they make love.

Orfeu, Mira, and Serafina are the principal members of a samba school, one of many parading during Carnival. Serafina decides to have Eurydice dress in her Queen of the Night costume so that she can spend more time with Chico. A veil conceals Eurydice's face; only Orfeu is told of the deception. During the parade, Orfeu dances with Eurydice rather than Mira.

Eventually, Mira spots Serafina among the spectators and rips off Eurydice's veil. Eurydice is forced once again to run for her life, first from Mira and then from Death. Trapped in Orfeu's own trolley station, she hangs from a power line to get away from Death and is accidentally killed by Orfeu when he turns the power on and electrocutes her. Death tells Orfeu, "Now she's mine," before knocking him out.

Distraught, Orfeu looks for Eurydice at the Office of Missing Persons, although Hermes has told him she is dead. The building is deserted at night, with only a janitor sweeping up. He tells Orfeu that the place holds only papers and that no people can be found there. Taking pity on Orfeu, the janitor takes him down a large darkened spiral staircase – a reference to the mythical Orpheus' descent into the underworld – to a Macumba ritual, a regional form of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé.

At the gate, they pass a guard dog named Cerberus. During the ritual, the janitor tells Orfeu to call to his beloved by singing. The spirit of Eurydice inhabits the body of an old woman and speaks to him. Orfeu wants to gaze upon her, but Eurydice begs him not to, lest he lose her forever. When he turns and looks anyway, he sees the old woman, and Eurydice's spirit departs, as in the Greek myth.

Orfeu wanders in mourning. He retrieves Eurydice's body from the city morgue and carries her in his arms across town and up the hill toward his home, where his shack is burning. A vengeful Mira flings a stone that hits him in the head and knocks him over a cliff to his death, with Eurydice still in his arms.

Two children, Benedito and Zeca – who have followed Orfeu throughout the film – believe Orfeu's tale that his guitar playing causes the sun to rise every morning. After Orfeu's death, Benedito insists that Zeca pick up the guitar and play so that the sun will rise. Zeca plays, and the sun comes up. A little girl appears, gives Zeca a single flower, and the three children dance.


Poster by Helmuth Ellgaard for the German release



Exoticizing gaze

The Palme d'Or and Oscar-winning film was celebrated internationally and criticized in Brazil; Vinicius de Moraes, author of the play Orfeu da Conceição upon which the film was based, was outraged by the film and left the theater in the middle of the screening.[20][12] Critics of the adaptation by Marcel Camus argued that it reinforced various stereotypes about Brazilian culture and society and about Afro-Brazilians specifically, portraying the characters as "simple-minded, overtly sexual, and interested only in singing and dancing."[11] Setting out to make itself more "appealing" to foreign audiences, the film resorts to a "cheap and problematic exoticism" of Brazil.[20]

Aggregated reviews

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a rating of 87% from 71 reviews, and an average rating of 7.9/10, with the consensus: "Colorful, atmospheric, and infectious, Black Orpheus takes an ancient tale and makes it fresh anew, thanks in part to its bewitching bossa nova soundtrack."[21] Metacritic assigned the film a weighted average score of 81 out of 100, based on 8 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".[22]

Awards and honors

Black Orpheus won the Palme d'Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival,[23] the 1960 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film,[24] the 1960 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film and was nominated for the 1961 BAFTA Award for Best Film. In the last case, Brazil was credited together with France and Italy. In July 2021, the film was shown in the Cannes Classics section at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.[25]


Black Orpheus was cited by Jean-Michel Basquiat as one of his early musical influences,[26] while Barack Obama notes in his memoir Dreams from My Father (1995) that it was his mother's favorite film.[27][28] Obama, however, did not share his mother's preferences upon first watching the film during his first years at Columbia University: "I suddenly realized that the depiction of the childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad's dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white, middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different."[29]

The film's soundtrack also inspired Vince Guaraldi's 1962 album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus.

As a child, Bong Joon-ho watched the film on Korean television and it made a big impact on him.[30]

Arcade Fire's fourth studio album Reflektor featured themes linked and inspired by the film.

See also


  1. ^ "M-G-M Cashing In on Oscar Victory: Ben-Hur Gross Expected to Reach 7 Million by Week's End – Spartacus Booked", The New York Times, 7 April 1960, p. 44.
  2. ^ Youssefnia, Julia (19 July 2007). "Black Orpheus".
  3. ^ Eli Kooris (16 August 2002). "Review: Black Orpheus (1959)". The Austin Chronicle. Retrieved 29 December 2019.
  4. ^ Dewar-Watson, Sarah (10 June 2014). Tragedy. Macmillan International Higher Education. ISBN 9780230392595 – via Google Books.[permanent dead link]
  5. ^ Parkinson, David (2000). "Black Orpheus". Empire.
  6. ^ Castro, Ruy (1990). Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World. Chicago: A Capella Books. pp. 166–167. ISBN 978-1-55652-494-3.
  7. ^ Valladares, Licia. Social Science Representations of Favelas in Rio De Janeiro: A Historical Perspective.
  8. ^ Bellos, Alex. "Movie palace", The Guardian (14 January 2006).
  9. ^ "Black Orpheus". Festival de Cannes. 1959. Retrieved 15 February 2009.
  10. ^ "The 32nd Academy Awards (1960) Nominees and Winners". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 27 October 2011.
  11. ^ a b "Black Orpheus | Brazil: Five Centuries of Change". Retrieved 7 March 2023.
  12. ^ a b Veloso, Caetano (20 August 2000). "An Orpheus, Rising From Caricature". Retrieved 7 March 2023.
  13. ^ Marpessa Dawn at IMDb
  14. ^ Hevesi, Dennis (5 September 2008). "Breno Mello, 76, Star of Orpheus, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 February 2012.
  15. ^ Guyot, Jean-François (17 May 2005). "Astro de Orfeu Negro conhece Cannes 46 anos apos vencer festival". Agence France-Presse. Retrieved 25 February 2012.
  16. ^ "Adhemar da Silva". Sports Reference LLC. Archived from the original on 17 April 2020. Retrieved 13 June 2015.
  17. ^ Pega Ladrão (1957) at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  18. ^ Vai que é Mole (1960) at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  19. ^ Diter Stein (3 April 2014). "Entrevista: era uma dupla; hoje moram em Lavras; o filme ganhou um Oscar". Jornal de Lavras (in Portuguese). Retrieved 29 December 2019.
  20. ^ a b "Orfeu negro: não era só um filme sobre Carnaval". O Município Blumenau (in Brazilian Portuguese). 16 February 2021. Retrieved 7 March 2023.
  21. ^ "Black Orpheus". Rotten Tomatoes.
  22. ^ "Black Orpheus". Metacritic.
  23. ^ "Black Orpheus". Festival de Cannes. 1959. Retrieved 15 February 2009.
  24. ^ "The 32nd Academy Awards (1960) Nominees and Winners". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 27 October 2011.
  25. ^ "2021 Cannes Classics Lineup Includes Orson Welles, Powell and Pressburger, Tilda Swinton & More". The Film Stage. 23 June 2021. Retrieved 25 June 2021.
  26. ^ Fretz, Eric. Jean-Michael Basquiat: A Biography, Greenwood Biographies, 2010, p. 5.
  27. ^ Gonzalez, Ed. "The House Next Door: Barack Obama: A Story of Race and Politics", Slant Magazine (22 March 2008).
  28. ^ Williams, Tia. "Vintage Vamp: Black Orpheus Star Marpessa Dawn" Essence, (21 August 2011).
  29. ^ Bradshaw, Peter, "Why Obama is wrong about Black Orpheus", The Guardian, 2 February 2009.
  30. ^ Bong Joon Ho's DVD Picks on YouTube
  31. ^ Scott, A. O. (25 August 2000). "Film Review; Reborn in a Less Romantic Rio, Orpheus Seasons Samba With Rap". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 October 2018.