‘Sadness Has No End’ — A Testament to ‘Black Orpheus’ and the Partnership That Started It All (Part One)

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Why Walk When You Can Run?

Breno Mello as Orfeu (The Criterion Collection)
Breno Mello as Orfeu (The Criterion Collection)

After sitting in silence for nearly three quarters of an hour, an agitated audience member suddenly let loose with an unexpected outburst that completely filled the main hall.

“It’s an outrage, an outrage I tell you!” the man shouted. “See what they’ve done to my piece!”

In the middle of the film’s premier presentation in Laranjeiras, a well-to-do Rio de Janeiro suburb, the person who would be deemed most responsible for its worldwide success had just stood up from his seat. He was headed briskly for the nearest exit.

“No, wait! Don’t go!” cried the movie’s producers after him. “Tell us, what’s wrong? Let’s talk it over. Give us a chance to explain. Wait, wait… come back!”

But it was to no avail. They were unable to calm their irate guest down or prevent him from leaving the scene in that infuriated fashion. To make matters worse, the now seething citizen was suspected of having gone all the way home to his apartment complex in Rio, overlooking the gorgeous Guanabara Bay, and drowning his sorrows out by getting “comfortably numb” in his bath.

This highly speculative account, insofar as it possesses all the earmarks of a Hollywood scenarist’s private fantasy, fits in perfectly with the events as they were known to have occurred — give or take quite a few dramatic liberties, of course. But they did not, thankfully for us, occur to composer Antonio Carlos Brasileiro de Almeida Jobim, or to such an underwhelming Columbia Pictures project as Bruno Barreto’s Bossa Nova (2000).

As a matter of record, Jobim, who was born in the Tijuca section of Rio on the 25th of January, 1927, could never have been given the red-carpet treatment there at the time Bossa Nova hit movie theaters: he had previously passed away of heart failure in New York City, at the age of 67, on December 8, 1994, a good five or more years before the film was even released.

Admittedly, not only could he not have left the showing in that uncharacteristic manner, he played absolutely no part in the Amy Irving/Antonio Fagundes co-starring vehicle. A weak celluloid homage to Cidade Maravilhosa, Bossa Nova was the brainchild of Amy’s director-husband Bruno, designed to show off Jobim’s Marvelous City through some of his most delectable song structures — “The Girl from Ipanema,” “Corcovado” (“Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars”), “Chega de Saudade” (“No More Blues”), “Wave,” and other classics — even though his name appears prominently in the opening credits.

It’s hard for anyone to imagine the gifted but introverted Tom Jobim — a gentle enough “free spirit” who suffered terribly from a persistent stage fright and shyness of others — as managing so attention-grabbing a stunt as running out of a movie screening, never mind having to live down the next day’s news headlines because of it. It simply wasn’t in his nature.

One man, however, did have the nature inside him, a man who had taken part in many a motion-picture gathering, along with the late-night extravaganzas and five-star gala events that inextricably went with it — and who did, in fact, walk out of one of them. That man was Vinicius de Moraes.

Not just another urban dweller of that photogenic playground-by-the-sea we know as Rio (he was born there on October 19, 1913), former diplomat, journalist, movie critic, lyricist, poet, playwright, songwriter, and performer Marcus Vinitius da Cruz Moraes was an obviously cultured sort, as well as Jobim’s senior by fourteen summers. Yet he died, almost Marat-like, in his trademark porcelain tub (so we are told) in his native city, on July 9, 1980, during the height of the region’s seasonal cold snap — and at almost the same expiration age (66) as his ex-creative partner.

It is there that any similarity between these popular-music icons would end. For while Jobim had labored valiantly to leave his admirers with the erroneous impression of coolness incarnate (he did adore the sophisticated sounds of North American cool-jazz players, though), the veteran Moraes was, for lack of a better term, the personification of volatility in the Brazilian male.

Not surprisingly, for two such hard-living talents as Vinicius and Tom had been while they were alive (their mutual fondness for strong drink and equally potent conversation was legendary among close friends and colleagues), the most lasting part of their 24-year association — their classic song output — was the one surviving aspect that could easily have been counted on to outlast them both.

Perhaps it was a sad commentary as well that the organ they most touched in others by their timeless tunes would, ironically for both of these fine artists, give out so early in their own lives: Ars longa, vita brevis, as the case may be.

But surely, if Heitor Villa-Lobos could be associated with the revered name of Johann Sebastian Bach; if another Antonio Carlos — opera composer Antonio Carlos Gomes — could be hailed as the “successor” to the Italian master Verdi, then the songwriting unit of Jobim and Moraes was bound to be touted as Brazil’s answer to German Romanticism’s Robert Schumann, with the British variant of John Lennon and Paul McCartney following close behind.

No matter who they were compared to, we can be assured of one thing: make no mistake about it, they were, by common consent, the recognized “rock stars” of their generation — within certain limitations.

This brings up not a few interesting points to ponder, such as how this intemperate league of extraordinary Brazilian gentlemen reached such unattainable heights in so short a period of time; by what means did the popular pair — exposed, as it was, to the early stimulus of art, literature, poetry, language, music, theater, and film — generate so much excitement within the jazz-pop field; and lastly, what was the catalyst that enabled the team to ride the crest of the once fast-rising bossa nova tide?

These preliminary thoughts go to the very heart of the duo’s longstanding relationship with listeners. Yet there is so much available material to sift through on this vast topic alone that it would be foolish for any writer to attempt to cover it all in one sitting. It’s better to concentrate at first on a single facet of their epochal music-making career — the most logical spot being at the beginning of it.

The Power of Myth — The Orpheus Myth, That Is

Vinicius de Moraes (circa 1938)
Vinicius de Moraes (circa 1938)

By now it should be apparent the lone, dissenting voice crying out in the Tijuca forest wilderness belonged to that of Vinicius de Moraes, the country’s best-known, modern-day bard. And the work that had wreaked such havoc with his fiery temperament, if not his high blood pressure, was that of French director Marcel Camus’ Orphee Noir, or Black Orpheus, his own 1959 screen adaptation of Vinicius’ musical play in verse, Orfeu da Conceição (“Orpheus of the Conception Hills”), from 1956.

Filmed on location in Rio between the years 1957 and 1958, and based on a modern re-working, set during the city’s renowned Carnival celebration, of the ancient Greek myth of poet-musician Orpheus — now transformed into a happy-go-lucky streetcar conductor — and his beloved Eurydice, the joint French, Italian, and Brazilian co-production soon took on mythic proportions of its own.

As a cross-cultural phenomenon, it proved an instantaneous hit with delighted movie audiences, not only grabbing the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival but sweeping all others before it, including major entries by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard, in the Best Foreign Picture category at the following year’s Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.

Though not a purely homespun product of Brazil by any means, Black Orpheus nonetheless helped focus the world’s eyes on the newly emerging Cinema Novo (or “New Wave”) movement about to take place there, which was a homespun product, and about as close to the French Nouvelle Vague as the talkies were to silent films, Vinicius’ other pet passion.

At any rate, it did help draw needed attention to such previously unknown talents as Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Glauber Rocha, Ruy Guerra, and Carlos Diegues (more about his individual contributions later on), thus making straight the path to serious cinematic recognition via a barrage of influential reviewers and opinionates.

The film also caused real-life poet and musician Vinicius de Moraes no end of controversy, evidenced by his bringing down the wrath of Zeus onto the hapless Camus and his producer, Sacha Gordine (who had befriended Vinicius during the poet’s stay in Paris), for perpetrating such a travesty of his stage conception. The deadliest of verbal thunderbolts, however, were hurled at screenwriter Jacques Viot — so much so that the carioca poet insisted his name be taken off the credits.

In view of the topnotch qualities of the work itself, why would Moraes raise such a splendid ruckus over it, especially after viewing the end result in all its prize-winning glory? What did the film world’s most respected award committees see in Camus’ magnum opus that its originator found so offensive and untrue?

To better comprehend the rage behind Vinicius’ unforeseen departure in Rio we must look to how the idea for his play first came about — and who better to communicate the history behind it all than the Brazilian Renaissance man himself:

“It was around 1942 that one night [at the home of architect Carlos Leão], after reading once again about the [Orpheus] myth in an old book on Greek mythology, I suddenly realized that it contained the framework for a tragedy set among the black population of Rio. The legend of the artist who, thanks to the fascination of his music, was able to descend into Hades to search for his beloved Eurydice… might very well take place in one of Rio’s shantytowns…

“I started to jot my vision down into a few verses, which then became a full act, finalizing it just as the sun rose over Guanabara, now visible through the window. It was another six years after that, while living in Los Angeles, that I was able to add the last two acts, and even later in 1953, after misplacing the third act and having to rewrite it, in Paris, before it was completed.”

In 1954, at the urging and insistence of his good friend, João Cabral de Mello Neto, who gave the work its title, Vinicius entered the finished draft in a contest commemorating the Fourth Centennial Celebration of the founding of the city of São Paulo; it won the top prize. Notwithstanding that fact, the poet’s representation of the Thracian minstrel Orpheus as an Afro-Brazilian of suitably “humble” origins (the direct result of his friendship with American writer and social critic, Waldo Frank, who encouraged Vinicius in his updating of the tale to contemporary times), along with Jobim’s shrewd depiction of favela (“slum”) life through the pulsating sounds of 1950s street samba, were not as novel a choice of material as might initially have been suggested by the above.

According to musicologist Richard Taruskin, in The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume Three: The Nineteenth Century, it was clear the allegorical Greek figure was the subject of numerous stage treatments long before Moraes got hold of his mythical lyre:

“Orpheus was present… at the creation of opera. Several of the earliest ‘musical tales’ that adorned Northern Italian court festivities in the early seventeenth century were based on his myth.”

Taruskin then took this notion a step further, emphasizing his strongly-held belief that, “The Orpheus myth was a myth of music’s ethical power, the supreme article of faith for all serious musicians… whenever the need was seen to reassert high musical ideals against frivolous entertainment values.”

That might have worked for opera’s founding fathers, but how would it play with Rio’s common folk? Indeed, whatever “high musical ideals” our serious-minded Brazilian poet intended for his poor-bound Orfeu would have to wait, due to his participation in some of those same “frivolous entertainment values” Taruskin had just railed against.

In essence, what Vinicius had failed to recount for readers were the subliminal influences the work of another close companion would have on the final scope and scenario of his play.

Welles Raises Kane in Rio

Orson Welles in Rio (LIFE Magazine)
Orson Welles in Rio (LIFE Magazine)

Enter the American director, writer, producer, actor, and jack-of-all-media-trades, the inimitable Orson Welles, once known in theatrical circles as the “Wonder Boy of Acting”; that master showman — some would say shaman — and larger-than-life personality (at six-foot, four-inches tall and weighing close to two hundred and fifty pounds, he certainly was that), now thrust into the cultural cauldron that was Carnival-crazed Brazil.

The Wisconsin-born Wunderkind had carved out a fabulous niche for himself in movie-land with his self-aggrandizing maiden effort, the classic Citizen Kane (1941). But during the turbulent years of the middle thirties, before the time that Vinicius claimed he was inspired to put pen and paper to his carioca tragedy, Welles had experimented with a version, set in Haiti, of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, staged in Harlem by him and his associate, John Houseman. With Welles at the helm, so to speak, drilling and coaching his non-professional cast for months on end, the all-black ensemble managed to traverse the tongue-tripping impediments of iambic pentameter, to the extent his so-called “Voodoo” Macbeth became one of the singular achievements of that racially divided period.

Of course, Vinicius could never have been privy to such an unconventional production in its prime, but he did get to make the acquaintance of the talented Mr. Welles in his. The chance to absorb from, and cavort with, the frenetic young “genius” up-close and personal — and in the poet’s backyard — was a rare opportunity indeed, one the dedicated film-lover and movie critic could ill afford to pass up. Fortunately, his cinematic credentials would help ease the transition into establishing the seismic connection.

It presented itself, in December 1941, through the Motion Picture Division of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, which, along with RKO Pictures, dispatched the twenty-five-year-old “boy wonder” to Brazil to film a cultural exchange project, in three parts, promoting friendly relations with Latin America — a job cartoonist Walt Disney had similarly been called upon to perform earlier that same year.

Uppermost on the division’s agenda was the use of this kind of innocuous programming ploy as an excuse to counter alleged militaristic tendencies within the Getúlio Vargas administration, in addition to shoring up needed support for the coming U.S. war effort. In line with this strategy, the Brazilian government was apparently unperturbed by the ruse. Quite the opposite: it was positively thrilled to have the much talked-about radio and film star visit its home shores, gauging his impending excursion “as a huge endorsement and a hope for the future; the native film industry perceived it as a step towards its emergence from obscurity.” These were both overly optimistic appraisals.

Delusions of pan-hemispheric unity aside, Vinicius witnessed firsthand the challenges Welles took on with regard to his mostly improvised semi-documentary It’s All True — in particular, the unfinished segment “Carnival,” in which the easily distracted director had poured his unflagging energy (and the studio’s monetary resources) into capturing Rio’s annual whirlwind procession circa February 1942.

What Welles hoped to achieve, as soon as a workable plan had come to mind, would be a spectacle “that would treat its black participants and black culture with respect and affection” — a view shared by his newfound friend Vinicius (then a worldly 29), who was more than willing to act as Orson’s tour guide through the country’s cultural labyrinth.

Quick study that he was, Welles had been tipped off beforehand as to Brazil’s geography, politics, customs, language, and cuisine. In fact, no sooner had he set foot in Rio than the welcoming throng greeted him as a conquering warrior: he was immediately referred to, appropriately enough, as o simpático garotão, or “the charming big boy.”

If that now meant he could samba the night away with some of Sugar Loaf’s loveliest ladies — and go off to shoot “Negroes covered with [m]aracatu feathers” afterwards, in an honest to goodness favela — then more power to him; with the upshot being that RKO Pictures and the Office of Inter-American Affairs got more than they bargained for, what with their self-indulgent “big boy” out of control.

On top of all these troubles, there were the meddling Brazilian authorities and not-so charming press types to tangle with. They certainly had their own ideas about what impressions of Brazil their neighbors to the north needed to have come away with — and they did not include footage of dancing “jigaboos” and “no good half-breeds” running around Rio “as if it were another Harlem.” Not only that, but the accidental drowning death of Jacaré, one of the poor Northeastern fishermen to be featured in Welles’ proposed third segment, “Four Men on a Raft,” slammed the door shut on the doomed endeavor beyond all hope of reopening.

With a management change and reshuffle at the home studio, the rain soon fell on Orson’s Rio Carnival parade. Expecting something along the lines of a standard-day travelogue, a somewhat “superficial view of Brazil that would encourage tourism rather than criticism and cries for social justice,” the head offices were rewarded instead with the director’s 16mm rough-cut of “poor people, particularly poor black people.”

In his review of the 1993 New York Film Festival presentation of It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles, movie critic Vincent Canby rightly observed: “[This] did not fit into any good neighbor policy that RKO or the U.S. State Department wanted to publicize,” with the result that the financial spigot was abruptly turned off on the aborted Brazil project. That did not stop Welles from carrying on with the assignment through his own makeshift means; but it did foil previous plans for him to finish the editing of his latest epic, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which laid the groundwork for his eventual undoing and removal from Hollywood’s A-list of sought-after filmmakers.

What of the faithful Moraes? He would meet up with his incorrigible pal Welles once more in 1946, in Los Angeles, where the poet and playwright went to assume his latest diplomatic post as vice-consul for Itamaraty; and where, by his own admission, he picked up the story of Orpheus right where he had left it. Not that his official duties with the Brazilian Foreign Service ever got in the way of perfecting his art. But while Vinicius was on the West Coast he did learn all he needed to learn about the movie business, mostly by watching the quadruple-threat Orson in action making The Lady from Shanghai (1948), a dismal box-office failure upon its belated release, as well as the unmaking of his friend’s four-year marriage to screen siren Rita Hayworth.

After the late 1940s, the well-tempered boy wonder’s career had seen its best days, but the seemingly more mature Mr. Welles would gamely soldier on by continuing to work as an independent. Because of the notorious Brazilian escapade, however, highlighted by his freewheeling methods and chaotic approach to movie-making, the major studios could no longer trust Orson to do the needful with respect to their valuable film properties. Welles’ own disillusionment with the elite of Hollywood’s motion-picture establishment led to his voluntary exile in Europe for most of the remainder of his life.

Despite all his difficulties with It’s All True (many of them, quite frankly, of his own devising), as expected Orson did, in fact, leave his personal stamp on Brazil’s nascent film industry — in a manner of speaking. To quote from critic Canby: “‘Four Men on a Raft’… [has] the gloriously liquid look of the heavily filtered, black-and-white photography favored in the 1930s to ennoble peasants and other common folk. It’s corny and possibly condescending, but it still works. Glauber Rocha, a leading talent in Brazil’s own Cinema Novo movement, used the same style in his Barravento (1961), which is set in the fishing village of Bahia.”

Otherwise, it was a slow and steady slide from Welles’ brilliant but barely conclusive beginning with Citizen Kane to his all-but unemployable ending, the memory of which would linger in Vinicius’ mind long after their warm relationship had substantially cooled. But not long enough to have profited from the director’s unheeded lesson about compromising one’s artistic integrity in the face of social and political realities.

A Certain Mister Jobim

Tom jobim & Vinicius de Moraes
Antonio Carlos Jobim & Vinicius de Moraes

Upon the satisfactory completion, in France, of his Orfeu da Conceição, and after its having attained the formal status in Brazil of an award-winning play of extraordinary merit and substance, Vinicius made the determined decision to have his glorified text set to music. He went about the task of searching for a composer of equivalent stature, someone who could do his poetic Orphic tragedy the musical justice it so richly deserved.

We can spare curious readers the needless suspense, since, as any reasonably knowledgeable music fan will tell you, Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim was the individual chosen to perform that estimable deed. How his future songwriting partner happened to pick Tom from among the wealth of available talent that samba-driven Rio had to offer is a familiar yet infrequently expanded-upon topic worth delving into at length.

All of the existing accounts either corroborate or confirm what we already know about how these two industry giants gradually came together at the Casa Villarino Bar, located in the old cultural center of Brazil’s former capital, Rio de Janeiro. Although the gist of their historic union resulted in the hesitant Tom’s halting commitment to write a score for Vinicius’ yet-to-be-produced masterpiece, there are enough differences in the details as to make those with inquisitive minds want to ask who-did-what-to-whom to bring this mighty encounter to life.

Take, for instance, the contributions of writer-composer Ronaldo Bôscoli, one of Vinicius’ closest journalistic companions and an early proponent of bossa nova (as well as his future brother-in-law). A behind-the-scenes radio commentator, music critic, and all-around authority on Brazilian popular culture, Bôscoli is often credited with being the first to mention Jobim by name as a possible candidate for the poet’s consideration.

Other sources hint at newspaperman Lúcio Rangel, a mutual friend, historian, and music buff, as the person most likely to have brought the two artists together. There was even a third party present, disc jockey Haroldo Barbosa, who was an eyewitness to the “earthshaking” event, as were many others, I’m sure, all of them steadfast in their recollection of what was said and done and why.

It would better serve us to know, with some clarity, the circumstances under which composer-musician Antonio Carlos Jobim rose to the forefront of one of the most respected and fruitful collaborations of recent times.

In the same year that Orfeu da Conceição received deserved distinction in São Paulo, the youthful Tom Jobim — a mere 29 at the time, and the same age as Moraes when the poet first met Orson Welles in Rio some twelve years earlier — had been eking out a passing existence as a copyist by day and part-time piano player by night. He even toyed with the idea of arranging and producing, along with being a sometime songwriter, primarily for the Continental Record Company.

Gravitating toward the larger Odeon label, where the novice Carmen Miranda made her mark a generation or so before, Jobim learned his craft from the ground up through the expert guidance of master arranger, producer, and composer Radamés Gnattali, who had a major influence on his style, as did Pixinguinha (Alfredo da Rocha Viana), Heitor Villa-Lobos, Ary Barroso, Dorival Caymmi, Frédéric Chopin, Maurice Ravel, and Claude Debussy, among others.

The early sambas and sambas-canções (“samba-songs”) he whipped up during this formative period — though nowhere near the subtlety and harmonic invention of his lasting work with Moraes, Newton Mendonça, Chico Buarque, and other greats — were admired and recorded by some of the era’s finest singing stars, among them Bill Far, Nora Ney, Lúcio Alves, Dolores Duran, and the mellow-voiced Dick Farney (real name: Farnésio Dutra e Silva).

Naturally, such consistent exposure in the marketplace soon attracted the notice of the local pop mavens. It’s probable, too, that Vinicius and Tom may have unknowingly crossed paths with each other — as spectator and guest performer, respectively — during one of their frequent nocturnal sorties into Rio’s exuberant nightlife.

However it came about, and by whatever means, let’s say that by April 1956, Antonio Carlos Jobim was a known and welcome quantity to those who wandered into his artistic milieu, which basically assured his discovery at some point in his life.

“Is There Any Money In It?”

Vinicius (center) at Casa Villarino
Vinicius (center) at Casa Villarino

The spot where the formidable carioca pair would finally meet and be formally introduced turns out to have been a favorite hangout for Rio’s political, intellectual, and literary community, sort of the Greenwich Village coffeehouse of its day. As immortalized in Brazilian author Ruy Castro’s book, Bossa Nova (“Chega de Saudade”): The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World, “It is almost unbelievable that the partnership of Vinicius and Tom Jobim could have been born in [a place such as] Casa Villarino,” only because no one took very seriously what came out of that easygoing establishment, knowing full well the detrimental effects that too much alcohol had on the proffered wisdom of the bar’s regulars.

But no matter: the fraternal gathering of music-loving and poetry-reading compatriots and cohorts would take place there on a late afternoon in the autumn of 1956. By that time, Jobim had a full-time day job to slave over, and a growing family of his own to concern with. He happened, quite by accident, to have been seated at a separate table inside Casa Villarino when his friend, Lúcio Rangel, called him over to speak to the notoriously opinionated bard.

Unbeknown to him at the time, however, was the fact that the veteran Vadico (Osvaldo Gogliano), a longtime collaborator with the tubercular Noel Rosa and an old hand at songwriting, had recently turned down Vinicius’ request (“for reasons of health”) to provide him with the music for his still scoreless play.

Not expecting much in the way of progress after the proposed tête-à-tête meeting with Vadico fell through, Vinicius, for his part, spent most of his getting-to-know-you session with Tom summarizing Orfeu’s plot and story line to the visibly incurious composer. Jobim, no doubt worried about his family’s finances, risked adding insult to injury by his justly famous remark, “Tem um dinheirinho nisso?” – “Is there any money in it?” (A slight variation of which is often translated as, “Is there any money associated with this story?”) Numbed at this tantalizing yet disingenuous line of questioning, Rangel stared blankly at his friend for a moment, then responded with a quotable line of his own: “But Tom, how can you bring money up to the poet at a time like this?” or something to that effect.

How could he, indeed, but that’s exactly what Jobim did — and he had a good laugh about it later, too, when recapping the incident for reporters. After a few more rounds of back-and-forth bargaining, to include copious amounts of liquid “persuasion,” an agreement was finally struck and a long-running partnership formed.

As these things tend to happen, Vinicius had a slightly different reading of the events of that particular day. “I was looking for some musicians,” he related in an interview for São Paulo’s Museum of Image and Sound. “Back then we used to hang out at… the Villarino; a lot of friends used to get together there around a large table in the late afternoon. It was there that, one evening, I was talking to Lúcio Rangel and Haroldo Barbosa, and Lúcio said: ‘Why don’t you try a young guy I know who I think is really talented?’ This guy played in some hellholes in Copacabana…”

“It was Lúcio who suggested Tom Jobim,” he went on, “though today there are two or three people who deny this, one of them his nephew. Tom was sitting at a table nearby, we asked him to join us, I made the proposal and he was vague about it, as usual. But we did decide to meet to talk about it later. I went to his apartment, gave him the play, he read it and liked it and said okay, he’d write the music for it. And so we began.”

The task of physically putting together a show and placing it onto the carioca stage had started in earnest. For the next several weeks, the newly cemented working outfit would barricade itself within Tom’s Ipanema apartment until the musical portion of their program was over, thanks largely to liberal helpings of native-Brazilian brew.

Gathering up his old friends and colleagues into one leftist-leaning basket, the “Little Poet,” as he was often called, enlisted the aid of architect Oscar Niemeyer, the man responsible for the country’s futuristic new capital, Brasília, as the principal set designer; painters Carlos Scliar, Djanira, Luis Ventura, and Raimundo Nogueira were hired as poster and scenic artists; Vinicius’ second wife, Lila Bôscoli de Moraes, was the costume designer; along with Argentine choreographer Lina de Luca, stage director Leo Jusi, and conductor Leo Peracchi in charge of the thirty-five-piece orchestra.

On September 19, 1956, one week before the musical play’s official opening of September 25th, at the imposing Teatro Municipal in downtown Rio de Janeiro — and three months after the commencement of stage rehearsals, which were constantly interrupted by his consular activities — playwright and poet Vinicius de Moraes dashed off this poignant dedication:

“This play is an homage to the Brazilian black man, to whom I owe so much; and not just for his organic contribution to the culture of this country – but more for his impassioned lifestyle that has allowed me, with little to no effort, by a simple spark of the imagination, to feel in the [inspiration] of the divine Thracian musician, that same inspiration [born of] the divine musicians from our own native carioca hills.”

The all-black, all-Brazilian cast — by and large, a fairly radical undertaking for its time — starred Haroldo Costa as Orfeu, Daisy Paiva as Eurídice, Léa Garcia as Mira (Serafina in the French film version), singer Ciro Monteiro as Apolo, and Zeny Pereira as Clio. Other members of the troupe included Adalberto Silva (Plutão), Pérola Negra (Proserpina), Waldir Maia (Corifeu), Francisca de Queiroz (Dama Negra), Clementino Luiz (Cérbero), Abdias do Nascimento, one of the founders of Brazil’s Experimental Black Theatre, as Aristeu the beekeeper, and Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump, Adhemar Ferreira da Silva, as one of the choristers as well as the skeletal Black Death figure in the movie.

Orfeu packed them in at the Municipal for a solid week, up through September 30, after which it moved on to the Teatro República (no longer in existence) for a month-long run. A last-ditch effort to switch venues to neighboring São Paulo collapsed due to a lack of available funding and space.

The Brazilian Play’s the Thing!

Haroldo Costa with Daisy Paiva (haroldcosta.com.br)
Haroldo Costa with Daisy Paiva (haroldcosta.com.br)

Nostalgia and the fog of remembrance often blind us to the reality of what life was like for the poor of the poet’s time. So let’s not mince words: it was exceedingly rough. The unrelieved harshness of their hand-to-mouth existence, so near in proximity to the city’s Mount Olympus-like natural wonders, compelled many of Rio’s neediest to huddle for shelter alongside her vast, hilltop expanse.

Finding comfort as well as misery in each other’s company, they were sandwiched in like sardines in makeshift corrugated shacks. The horrendous living conditions the populace had to endure frequently mimicked the horrendous behavior of the favela’s resident malefactors, which included the local constabulary charged with providing for their betterment. Poverty and hunger, rampant corruption and out-of-control crime, child abuse, disease, drugs, prostitution, broken homes, and juvenile delinquency — problems we still deal with on a daily basis whether they’re found on the streets of Philadelphia or in the slums of Mumbai — were the unfortunate outgrowth of this dysfunction and neglect.

Vinicius was not unmindful of such matters, as we well know, nor was he at all ignorant of the turbulence endemic to the warlike ethos of Orpheus’ time. With a firm nod in the direction of Euripides, he transposed many of the starkest elements of Greek drama whole-scale into his Tragédia carioca em três atos, while re-positioning them against everyday Brazilian slum life.

This is an important distinction, as elaborated on by Thais Flores Nogueira Diniz of the Federal University of Ouro Preto, in her transcendent essay, “O Mito como tradução, em Vinicius de Moraes” (“Myth as Translation in Vinicius de Moraes”). The play, she notes, is a celebration of Rio de Janeiro’s culture, not Greece’s; and Orfeu, a uniquely Brazilian individual with so-called “special qualities,” is both an un-god-like hero and a quasi-immortal with his own tragic destiny to fulfill.

Oscar Niemeyer, a master of curvilinear shapes and forms (who incidentally marked his stage debut with this piece), was himself strongly influenced by classical antiquity, as was Lila Bôscoli de Moraes with her designs for the show’s captivating gowns. Beyond this, Niemeyer’s plans for Brazil’s futuristic capital city — by filling its “vast empty space” with “sensuous white curves in glass and concrete” — were the visible manifestation of what Jobim and Vinicius aurally tried to capture with their epicurean taste in tunes.

Orfeu da Conceição is dedicated to Vinicius’ daughter, Susana de Moraes, and prefaced by two literary quotations referencing the mythological poet-minstrel and his lyre: the first from John Dryden’s “Ode in Honour of St. Cecilia’s Day,” and the second from “La Crema” by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

There next comes a series of directives, the most informative of which stress that, “All the personages of this tragedy should normally be played by black actors… The popular slang that is employed throughout, which tends to fluctuate with the times, can be adapted to fit these new conditions. The lyrics of the sambas included in the play… should be used as is, although the story can be altered in the same manner as the slang.” Film director Carlos Diegues later took Vinicius’ injunction to update his story “to fit these new conditions” literally, and to its ultimate extreme.

A recapitulation of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, excerpted from The Golden Legend of Gods and Heroes by Mario Meunier — apparently, the inspirational source for the poet’s imagination — follows a listing of the play’s dramatis personae. Orpheus represents the duality present in all artists and their art. A serious figure, as well as a bold adventurer and inveterate toga-chaser — that is, until he meets up with the lovely tree-nymph Eurydice — he is a musician and a poet of surpassing skill and grace whose melodic musings caused the very birds of the air to give pause before taking wing.

Musician and poet Vinicius de Moraes knew the type only too well. He telegraphed those qualities he found within himself by expressing (as Caetano Veloso, in a brush with purple prose, once wisely put it) his soul’s “sweetly tragic aspects through music” and verse. Nine times married, as opposed to his songwriting partner’s lowly two, and a sensualist right down to the marrow in his bones, he made the successful transition to the stage via an extraordinary leap of faith in the untested Tom Jobim, who through a thin veneer of self-confidence at his disposal had the wherewithal to make it all happen.

Orfeu da Conceição (sebodomessias.com,br)

While it’s tempting to equate an artist’s past or present circumstances with any of his finished handiwork, or to read too much into them, it is perfectly reasonable to make the extra effort in this regard. There are many instances in Vinicius’ “Carioca Tragedy in Three Acts” where one gets the uneasy feeling the actual events of his sybaritic existence were being staged for our gratification and enjoyment — an uncomfortable reenactment of the poet-musician’s life as a voluptuary, or “a person given over to luxury and the pursuit of sensual appetites.” You be the judge.

Hot-blooded Latin temperaments vie with Aegean passion and lust in the play’s lengthy first act, which takes place in a hillside slum. After the opening speech by the leader of the chorus — “Many are the dangers of this life for he who possesses passion,” goes the exculpatory first line — and an expository sequence between Clio and Apolo, Orfeu’s poverty stricken parents, the title character wanders in with Eurídice’s name in his thoughts and in his words. There’s a scene for mother and son, in which Clio begs him to forget about marriage (“Why tie yourself down when you can have any girl?”), along with a passage wherein she warns Orfeu not to provoke the jealousy of other women — advice unheeded by our hero.

The object of his affection soon arrives, but not before Orfeu launches into his first solo, “Um nome de mulher” (“The Name of a Woman”). The lovers trade terms of endearment, while Eurídice half-jokingly confides that she will die from love of Orfeu (prophetic phrases, indeed). He in turn calls her the “beauty of life,” among other amorous declarations, in the famous monologue that follows. With its gorgeous guitar and flute accompaniment, “Mulher mais adorada” (“Most Beloved Woman)” is the closest thing in the play to an aria.

His poetic ruminations (the wonderful ballad, “Se todos fossem iguais a você”) soon provoke the ire of Mira de Tal, his jealous ex-girlfriend. In their angry exchange, Orfeu reveals heretofore-untapped levels of macho posturing: he’s notorious, among other things, for his abusive mistreatment of women.

In addition to the above incidents, there are numerous references to the plight of the impoverished (“Poor folk don’t marry,” his mother informs him, “they just live together”); Eurídice’s premeditated stabbing death by the envious Aristeu (soon after Orfeu’s deflowering of her maidenhood); preceded by Orfeu’s song, “Mulher, sempre mulher” (“Always a Woman”), and the infernal ravings of Dama Negra, a terrifying harbinger of death, who at the curtain claims Eurídice’s lifeless form with her huge cloak.

Act II occurs in the seamy underside of the city, here depicted as a combination dance palace and single’s bar known as Os Maiorais do Inferno, or “The Big Shots from Hell,” where the biggest shots of all, Plutão (“Pluto”) and his obese queen Proserpina (“Persephone”), preside over an all-out Bacchanalian orgy of wine, women, and samba. The act is primarily taken up with Orfeu’s crashing of the Carnival revelers’ party, his drowning of his own sorrows, and his pathetic cries of “Eurídice, I want my Eurídice,” first evidenced in Act I and now duly mocked (“I am Eurídice”) by the taunting denizens of the club.

Act III is in two scenes. In the first, which is reminiscent of the communal outpouring of grief in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, we are back at the slum. Orfeu’s parents and friends are in mourning for the dead Eurídice. Individual voices recite an irreverent form of the Roman Catholic Creed (a hint of Orfeu’s “divine” origins), with the distraught hero curiously at its center. One by one, the slum dwellers relive the couple’s tale of woe.

Several of the townspeople take the inconsolable Clio away to a waiting ambulance, the operators of which stubbornly refuse to take up the hill for fear of their lives. The delirious Clio blames Eurídice for all the trouble she has brought to her son and their once “happy” community. A group of boys, playing on homemade percussion instruments, now enter and chant a samba, “Eu e o meu amor” (“My Love and I”), repeating the verses as they cross the stage and disappear into the background.

The scene now shifts outside to a house of ill repute on the outskirts of town. Mira is seen drinking and picking a fight with one of the girls. A bewildered Orfeu appears. He walks around in a perpetual daze while speaking to his departed Eurídice as if she were still with him (“Lamento no morro” – “Lament on the Hill”). His forlorn attitude and dejected behavior rekindle the drunken Mira’s wrath, as she and the other enraged women fall upon their hapless prey. They attack with all the fury of females scorned, slicing and dicing him up with their knives and switchblades.

Relief comes in the ghostly apparition of Dama Negra, who entices Orfeu to join her in death by imitating Eurídice’s love call. Orfeu resigns himself to his fate, as the women pounce upon him one last time. Emerging from the bloodletting with the hero’s guitar (his manhood?) in hand, Mira flings it over the cement wall. There is an enormous crash as the instrument lands, which frightens some of the women away.

The violence comes to an end in the same manner as before, with Dama Negra claiming Orfeu’s corpse with her cape amid the soft sounds of his guitar, mysteriously playing on its own in the background. The curtain falls on the chorus’ spoken apotheosis.

It’s All Just a Myth-Understanding

For most hardworking individuals, success is not just a two-syllable word meaning a “favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors” — in this case, the sufficiently favorable run of not only Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes’ fully-orchestrated musical concept, Orfeu da Conceição; but also its much anticipated screen adaptation, Black Orpheus (known inside Brazil by its alternate title, Orfeu do Carnaval), which arrived on the scene a few years later.

No, success is more often a two-way street, implying that, with a good deal of time (and a little bit of leeway) between them, all enterprising new ventures begin to acquire a complex mythology all their own; what nowadays is described as “excess baggage” — usually one separate and distinct from their original purpose or intent. This was evidently so of the all-Brazilian Orfeu and the French-made Black Orpheus.

Breno Mello (Orfeu) serenading Marpessa Dawn (Euridice)
Breno Mello (Orfeu) serenading Marpessa Dawn (Euridice)

One of these myths circulated around the soundtrack to Marcel Camus’ acclaimed co-production. Contrary to popular belief, it did not incorporate any of the original show tunes created by Vinicius and Tom for their contemporary stage version of the story, the most memorable of which, the beautiful ballad “Se todos fossem iguais a você” (“If Everyone Were Like You”), called, under its better-known English title, “Someone to Light Up My Life,” became a standard with entertainers of the time. The other numbers on the list, “Um nome de mulher,” “Monólogo de Orfeu,” “Mulher, sempre mulher,” “Eu e o meu amor,” and “Lamento no morro,” all met the same fate and, ergo, were not part of the film; neither was any of the incidental music Jobim had so carefully labored over (“Overture,” “Tema de Eurídice,” “Modinha,” “A Dama Negra,” and “Macumba”).

The reason for their omission was, as a matter of financial expediency, a purely practical one — from the French vantage point, that is: the producers did not want to be encumbered by future royalty payments or copyright infringement issues. Touché! Whatever new music did come out of the arrangement would, by contractual obligation, become the exclusive property of the studio, thereby placing it under its strict control — a win-win proposition for the French that left the playwright and composer out of the revenue stream.

Another related aspect concerned the quality and quantity of the vocal numbers. As one of the first foreign productions to introduce street-style samba, samba de morro (“samba from the hills”), and the wonderful “new beat” of bossa nova to the international movie-viewing public, Black Orpheus has been lavishly praised and idolized — beyond all recognition — as a wall-to-wall musical montage, a non-stop Carnival pageant, and (worst of all) a fantastic party-hearty banquet for the senses from beginning to end, much as Brazil’s own pre-Lenten festival was reputed to be.

This is patently untrue, and a fabulous trick of the mind played on the part of loyal movie followers with famously short memories. It happens that the score for the stage version, in keeping to the prevailing trend, was much closer in style to samba-canção, or “slower samba,” than anything that came after.

Although in the film real-live street sambas were recorded on the spot, then re-edited for use, by Camus, into the Rio Carnival sequence, the much-ballyhooed bossa nova sound — which, technically speaking, did not reach its maximum potential as a fully-formed pop genre until after the close of the decade — barely managed to make its debut in Black Orpheus. It was imperceptible in the play, however, which was comprised of more rudimentary material.

Regardless, the music that was ultimately used lasted no more than several minutes of screen time, if that; nor did it take up every second of every film frame, either, as some critics have ascertained. As it was, the relatively few numbers overall were spaced out somewhat evenly, if not always seamlessly, over the film’s one-hundred-and-three-minute running time (the Criterion Collection DVD features an additional four minutes of previously unseen footage) — hardly the super-duper sound fest most fans seem to recall from the Black Orpheus of their youth.

But the most common misconception of all, which may or may not have been an unintended distortion of Vinicius’ integral idea for his work, was the conviction that Jobim and Moraes were the sole perpetrators of the movie’s songs and music. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sharing co-equal billing status with fellow carioca Tom Jobim was a friend of singer Dick Farney: composer and performer Luiz Bonfá, who from the Teatro Municipal’s orchestra pit had plucked away on Orfeu’s lovely guitar solos in the original Rio stage setting.

On their own, and away from the movie house, Bonfá’s additions — the plaintive mournfulness of “Manhã de Carnaval” (“Morning of Carnival,” better known as “A Day in the Life of a Fool”), followed by the raw jubilation of his rhythmically buoyant “Samba de Orfeu,” which ends the urban tragedy on a hopeful note — came to symbolize, for most foreign viewers, what the “reel” Black Orpheus was all about.

In the beautifully flowing strophes of Bahia’s own native poet-minstrel, the singer-songwriter (and former movie critic) Caetano Veloso, both Vinicius’ play and Camus’ subsequent film version succeeded in unveiling Brazil to the world “as an Orphean country, a country that expresses its soul’s sweetly tragic aspects through music.”

Almost by definition, Bonfá’s two unforgettable melodic “expressions,” written in tandem with his lyricist Antonio Maria, became the heart and soul of Black Orpheus, and, quite fittingly, its most widely disseminated (and listened to) showpieces — more so even than Jobim-Moraes’ opening number, “A Felicidade” (“Happiness”), or the team’s other able efforts, “Frevo de Orfeu” and “O nosso amor” (“Our Love”).

Without diminishing the market value of Tom and Vinicius’ songwriting abilities, the universal hoopla that quickly followed in the wake of the movie’s built-in mass appeal caught most Brazilians off guard and completely by surprise.

Let the facts speak for themselves: the entire enterprise came, coincidentally enough, at a rare cosmic convergence in the country’s history — when Brazil was basking in the sunlight of a potential resurgence — with the national team winning its first World Cup Soccer Championship in Sweden; with the U.S. State Department sponsoring a trip to Brazil that would bring the American jazz-pop community into closer contact with bossa nova; and with Brazil being strategically placed to join the front ranks of First World nations in the inauguration of its modernistic new capital city, Brasília.

Hats off to the visionary developmentalist responsible for that incredible coup: Brazil’s President Juscelino Kubitschek, whose quasi-governmental entity Tupan Filmes helped put up part of the financing for French director Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus project in the first place. Talk about hedging one’s bets!

Beware of Greeks and Gauls Bearing Gifts

We now come full circle, to return to the point in our drama where Vinicius de Moraes met the Eastmancolor® widescreen — and the widescreen won. Every indication we’ve seen so far should have prepared the film’s producers for the defiant stand the inflamed carioca poet took with respect to the premiere of Black Orpheus at the presidential palace in Laranjeiras. (It did not.)

Some of the more insightful commentaries regarding Vinicius’ willful behavior there range from his “ideological” opposition to, rather than the aesthetically “visual” and/or “narrative” aspects of, the story, in Professor of Art History, Dr. Stephen Wright’s more studied interpretation; to singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso’s personal take on the matter, framed by his own extensive movie-going experience, wherein he criticizes director Camus’ cinematic view of his countrymen as “inauthentic,” “unreal” and “outrageously fanciful,” even by Brazilian standards.

“To say that the film was received without enthusiasm in Brazil is an understatement,” wrote Veloso in The New York Times. “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,” to say nothing of the loneliness of the long distance-running Vinicius in his late-night getaway from the movie’s gala preview to his more modest surroundings in Gávea.

So what got the poet’s goat? Why did Vinicius so precipitously “bail out” of Black Orpheus on opening night? The nearest one can arrive at a logical explanation would, by necessity, have to be built on the prima facie evidence at hand, and from a deeper understanding of the poet’s personality and character: a posteriori, it had plenty to do with his undisguised displeasure at how his poetic creation was disfigured by the French in the transition from stage to screen.

Marpessa Dawn & Breno Mello (The Criterion Collection)
Marpessa Dawn (Euridice) & Breno Mello (The Criterion Collection)

From the caring individual he first envisaged, a person intimately involved in and aware of the problems of his poor favela neighborhood, yet still capable of expressing outgoing concern for family and friends (whole sections of which were virtually eliminated from the screenplay); to one more than a little “obsessed,” shall we say, with the charms of a country bumpkin-style Eurídice (played by Pennsylvania-born dancer Marpessa Dawn), the filmic interpolation of soccer star Breno Mello as Orfeu emerged as altogether unrecognizable to the socially conscious playwright.

If that were the only consideration, he might just as easily have withstood the onslaught a bit better than he inopportunely did. But there was more to it than that. Part of the problem stemmed from his over-familiarity with the deplorable state of Brazil’s impoverished under-classes, many of who had wrestled with government inaction in attending to their needs for as long as he could remember — with none of it, lamentably, finding its way either into the script or onto the big screen.

This was hard enough for Vinicius to swallow, but what could have tipped him even further over the edge was the supplanting of the play’s lofty oratory with one that robbed his characters of their sublime elegance and charm, hence the hasty decision to distance himself from any affiliation with Camus’ work.

Coming to the French filmmaker’s aid, Dr. Wright appears willing to weigh in with a slightly different take on the issue: “Camus was less worried with the social realities of the favela and more interested in creating a classic retelling of the [Orpheus] myth with an emphasis on the tragedy through a complex iconography that symbolically merges myth and reality, albeit from a foreign [emphasis added] perspective.” That would certainly help to explain, but not to justify, Vinicius’ protestations about it all, in that he may well have blown the whole thing out of proportion, in addition to taking what was done artistically to his play far too seriously (and too personally).

“It was one of the greatest disappointments I have ever had in my life,” he complained soon after the film appeared. “I had not seen the rushes, and I was in Montevideo when I was told that the movie had won the Palme d’Or. So I went wild and celebrated and thought they had really gotten it right. Then, when I came back [to Brazil], Juscelino invited me for the first screening at the presidential palace, together with his family and two or three people from the production. I got such a shock as I watched the movie that I simply slipped out and went home. I felt I just wouldn’t be able to face those Frenchies when the lights came on. I might even have come to blows with them.”

While all this was bubbling over, where was the poet’s composing partner and what did he think of his hotheaded friend’s frustration with the flick? He may have said something along the lines of, “Meu chapa, deixa isso pra lá,” loosely translated as “Let it go, my man,” which would have been sound advice if the bard had actually heard it. That neither Tom nor Vinicius thought very highly of Camus and Gordine’s extravagances is thoroughly documented in their correspondence.

Even with Vinicius’ nonconformist attitude toward his and other people’s lifestyles, he simply could not tolerate the inexplicable racial stereotypes that were prevalent throughout the film, some of them rather perplexing. A good example is the comic spat between Eurídice’s cousin, Serafina (Léa Garcia), and her sailor boyfriend Chico (Waldetar de Souza), two characters created especially for the feature. After waiting months for shore leave, the passion-starved marinheiro literally throws himself onto the girl at first sight, only to be stalled by a snoot-full of watermelon. He then proceeds to devour the treat as compensation for his failed lovemaking efforts — how droll.

There were other penny-dreadful situations as well, many involving the overly jealous Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), Orfeu’s intended bride and a major holdover from the play, who carries on like a “bitch in heat” every time she catches her fiancé diverting his gaze from her buxom form. In fairness, there exists a valid basis for her frantic disposition, most likely derived from the actions of the Maenads, or Bacchantes (after the god Bacchus), of Greek mythology, as handed down to us by the Roman poet Virgil and reinterpreted by Camus in this updated context.

As irresponsible a personage as he was frequently portrayed in the media, and in life, Vinicius was nothing if not true to his inner self. He lived by his words — and what beautifully expressive ones they were, too, in particular his heartfelt paean to Brazil’s black population, quoted earlier in this essay and written on the eve of Orfeu da Conceição’s debut.

Isn’t it ironic that what was shown up there on the silver screen, for all the world to see, in the Cidade Maravilhosa of 1959 was essentially the same old, Carnivalesque view of the city (remember those dancing “jigaboos,” “no good half-breeds,” and “Negroes covered with [m]aracatu feathers”) which the path-breaking Orson Welles once tried to capture — and paid a dear price for — in his tarnished It’s All True epic, back in the “good neighbor” days of 1942.

The poet was well versed as to the details of what happened to “this great Brazilian,” that young filmmaking genius, who, in a spirited homage Vinicius paid to him at the time, “has felt Brazil and the Brazilian people in a deeper, richer way than the vast majority of foreigners who have lived among us,” Camus later included. He remembered, quite vividly, the struggles Welles went through to get his more truthful vision of Rio off the ground, and the resounding failure he experienced at his inability to see it through to fruition.

The difference now was that, in the interval between the making of these two features, a new feeling — call it a nationalistic fervor — had taken root in the administration of then-President Juscelino Kubitschek and in the Brazilian nation as a whole; whereby the image to be imparted to would-be travelers was that of a happy, friendly, carefree people with wide-open, welcoming arms… why, just like that of the country’s emblematic Christ the Redeemer-figure. (Fancy that!)

Brazil had basically done the talk; it was time now to get down to business and do the walk (more like a leisurely beach stroll). Not that this meant anything to Vinicius, but the message he received from the film — perhaps through his more politically-oriented mode of thinking — was this: “Forget about slums and poverty, folks, come along and party with us.” That was some revised “good neighbor” policy that was put into effect! Whichever way one looks at it, the authorities in both the northern and southern climes, and on both continents, got what they deserved in inadvertently realizing their dream for a “superficial view of Brazil that would encourage tourism rather than criticism and cries for social justice,” the poet’s ability to see through the farce notwithstanding.

And being a poet, of course, Vinicius knew precisely what the differences between reality and myth entailed. What he ultimately objected to was the mockery of slum life the producers had made out of his carioca tragedy. If a foreigner (and good friend) such as Welles, after all the time, money, and energy he spent in Brazil learning how to samba in a Rio de Janeiro nightclub, could get it right from the start and still remain faithful to the material — warts and all — as well as respectful of its sources, then why couldn’t Camus, in his eyes, do the same?

Artists are such temperamental creatures by nature. That being the case, Vinicius’ flight from Black Orpheus should be construed as no less of an aggrieved artistic statement than, say, avant-garde playwright and theater director Gerald Thomas’ highly-publicized butt-baring episode at the Teatro Municipal — in the same city and in our own time — after his controversial 2003 staging of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde premiered there.

Keeping the above incident in mind, Vinicius de Moraes was, as we have witnessed, profoundly incapable of taking such abuse of his work in stiff-upper-lip fashion (“tolerance” was not a virtue in his vocabulary). He may have been asking a lot from Monsieur Camus, but who’s to say how much is too much where the original author was concerned?

The real carioca tragedy, then, for us outsiders, and especially for the noted Brazilian poet, was the bruising of his artist’s ego as well as the un-just neglect of his compassionate, respectful edition of Orfeu in favor of the gussied-up, prettified, less faithful rendering of the movie version. Still, for all its inherent flaws, including a patchwork delineation of street Carnival and a truly bizarre macumba sequence towards the end — comparable to the one in Bruno Barreto’s 1978 sex comedy, Dona Flor e seus dois maridos (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands), but for the opposite purpose — the award-winning Black Orpheus managed to come along at exactly the right moment.

It fit this ideal, picture-postcard view of Marvelous City to a “T,” and, as such, should be taken on its own terms, i.e., the marvelous costumes, the superb cinematography, its closer adherence to the Greek myth, and the fine musical score. Whether the production was of Gallic origin or a strictly Brazilian affair all the way was of little consequence to viewers. All the same, no amount of boycotting from its official co-creator could have prevented the Black Orpheus juggernaut from fulfilling its entertainment mission at any cost.

To be sure, the film was an absolute goldmine to the travel and hospitality industry, which would have had to make due without Vinicius’ backing in promoting it. (It did.) How many uncommitted foreigners turned into fervent expatriates after dining on a steady course of the eye candy our all-too astute Frenchman, Marcel Camus — like any good French chef — had so elaborately prepared for them? One can easily lose count.

Marcel Camus (left) with Vinicius (1959)
Marcel Camus (left) with Vinicius (1959)

The only other element to have come out of this unscathed — and one well supported by the facts — was the soft “new sound” of Brazilian bossa nova, a breezy sonic enhancement most pop-music fanatics had no reason to suspect would become the next biggest thing to hit the record stands since Bill Haley and His Comets convinced us to “Rock Around the Clock.”

(End of Part One)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

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2 thoughts on “‘Sadness Has No End’ — A Testament to ‘Black Orpheus’ and the Partnership That Started It All (Part One)

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    HKTTDkQz said:
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