Orfeu (Toni Garrido) moves through the streets of Rio de Janeiro like a man who knows the sort of satisfaction most people will never know. An accomplished and respected musician, Orfeu composes prize-winning sambas for the city’s Carnaval parade. He is also quite the ladies’ man, the kind of languidly attractive lover that women are drawn to and generally know not to get too attached to. Yet something is missing from Orfeu’s life — true love, perhaps, an anchor for his passions. The film Orfeu is about how he finds it; unfortunately, he doesn’t know that his character is based on the Orpheus legend, or that love will equal despair.
To enjoy Orfeu, you don’t have to be familiar with the Orpheus myth, or with the two major films based on the legend (Jean Renoir’s 1949 Orpheus, or Marcel Camus’ Oscar-winning 1959 Black Orpheus, also set in Rio de Janeiro during the Carnaval); it may actually help if you’re not. Director Carlos Diegues, who wrote the script with four others, clearly doesn’t intend Orfeu as a film that requires Cliff’s Notes. At its best, it’s an electric symphony of sights and sounds — the vivid colors of the Carnaval, the liquid music of the acclaimed Brazilian composer Caetano Veloso, the pristine wide-screen photography of Affonso Beato (who has shot some of Pedro Almódovar’s recent films). This is lively, fully engaged mythmaking.
Orfeu is instantly struck foolish with love for Eurídice (Patricia França), a newcomer to the chaos of the city, a young woman with soft features and even softer black hair spilling down her shoulders. Eurídice is here to stay a while with her aunt Carmen (Maria Ceiça), a no-nonsense woman in her late thirties perhaps, who has been around the block a few times, at least once with Orfeu. Despite the inconvenience of a fiancée — Mira (Isabel Fillardis), a giggly narcissist who waves the copy of Playboy she’s in as if it were an acceptance letter from Harvard — Orfeu can’t stop following Eurídice around, and if we know anything about movies, we know she will get over her initial misgivings and land in his arms.
For conflict, we have a local drug kingpin named Lucinho (Murilo Benício), who has been best friends with Orfeu since childhood and remains respectful of him despite Orfeu’s disdain for Lucinho’s career path. We also have the bitter cop Pacheco (Stepan Nercessian), who wants to nail Lucinho despite — or maybe because of — the fact that he is Lucinho’s godfather. Both of these characters catch Orfeu in the middle; they become angry at him for remaining noncommittal to one side or the other. They also tell him he’s “untouchable,” as if the death of a popular samba composer would bring down apocalypse; details like this don’t translate very well from the Greek myth, in which Orpheus was beloved by the gods and Muses.
Orfeu is colorful and vibrant, painting its story with bold, operatic strokes. Carlos Diegues is perhaps best known in America for his 1980 Bye Bye Brazil, an art-house hit whose reputation as an erotic comedy preceded it. Orfeu is more sensuous than sensual, letting the flamboyance of the Carnaval set its tone, then sprinkling it with the gray reality of the slums (where Orfeu insists on living, though he could afford to live anywhere else). We get a sharp sense of the two worlds of this particular universe, with telling details like a green-haired kid who paints murals and prefers to be called Michael (after Jackson or Jordan), or little girls smearing lipstick all over their faces, or the blasé reaction to gunshots (“Is that fireworks or gunshots?” “Fireworks, right now”).
This is something of a pleasurably overstuffed movie — it tries to get a lot into its 110 minutes, and mostly succeeds with smooth skill. The last act feels a bit predetermined, as if Diegues realized he’d better get around to the outcome of the Orpheus/Eurydice affair and stop goofing around with minor characters, like the rabbitty assassin who dresses like Superman and carries a sniper’s rifle in his drum. Once Orfeu clicks into tragic mode, it doesn’t disappoint; Diegues goes all out, like many foreign directors unafraid of grand gestures because they haven’t been infected with American irony. Even here, God is in the details: a grieving woman slamming a window shut with a stick that will soon be used lethally; a heartbroken father blowing a whistle in rhythmed lamentation, for whatever reason — maybe at such a moment it’s all he can think of to do. Orfeu seduces the eye and stays in the mind.