In Los Angeles, meantime, Vinicius de Moraes’ old film-making buddy and ex-comrade in arms, director-actor-producer Orson Welles, had been experiencing quite a few clashes of his own with authority figures and the body politic in relation to the final cut of his B-movie Touch of Evil.
The original distributor, Universal Studios, had wrestled the picture away from the onetime “boy wonder,” presumably for his having squandered his time, and their money, over the endless editing process — a habit-forming mode of operation taken from the well-worn pages of the Welles playbook. Universal then went ahead with re-fashioning the work to its own, less critical standards.
Basically, it was reduced to a pitiable, if not altogether indecipherable, 93 minutes of convoluted screen blather. Fortunately for all concerned, Welles left the studio a lengthy outline — a remarkably lucid, 58-page memorandum detailing how he wanted the piece to be remembered and preserved.
His wishes prevailed in the end, and, in 1998, after almost 40 years of a butchered and unrepresentative edition in continuous art-house circulation, the cult favorite was made available to fans in its pristine form — or as close to it as was humanly possible, given the lack of the director’s imposing presence to oversee the reconstruction effort.
Because of the tender loving care belatedly lavished on it, Welles’ Touch of Evil was universally acclaimed (no pun intended) as a motion-picture classic, one of the best of a long line of crime dramas known generically as film noir, or “dark film.” It was fated to be Orson’s last hurrah as far as Hollywood-style productions were concerned.
Even with that long-ago blast from the cinematic past, it was a sure bet that amateur magician Welles would conjure up fewer and fewer celluloid surprises of any lasting value or worth for the duration of his career. He finally left the celebrity limelight, on October 10, 1985, after having expired of complications brought on by heart failure and extreme overweight.
As for his former friend Vinicius, he had cashed in his own chips a few years before in July 1980. Not a particularly large man to begin with — unlike the magnificently corpulent Welles — the unprepossessing poet, playwright, and performer nonetheless spent the last decade of his life expanding his artistic horizons by touring Europe and South America, while adding to his waistline and girth.
He grew his hair out and even started wearing horn-rimmed glasses, which gave him the unflattering visage of an unkempt tortoise. He had the unusual habit as well of shedding wives at the slightest provocation. In total, there were nine Mrs. Moraes, with enough assorted flings and fancies scattered about the halls of the Civil Registry to make the average cidadão sit up and take notice.*
Despite their later bedraggled looks and somewhat sullied reputations as maverick auteurs, neither man saw his mutilated vision made whole again in his lifetime. Welles did regain a modicum of admiration and respect with the posthumous re-release of the “definitive” version of Touch of Evil. Could the same not be done for Vinicius’ theater piece Orfeu da Conceição, or its more celebrated offshoot, the movie Black Orpheus? Who would come to the venerable Brazilian bard’s aid and rescue his carioca tragedy from an ignoble end?
In a faint echo of what ultimately took place with Touch of Evil, help arrived more than 40 years after the fact — and in a not totally unexpected form, at that — in the sense that renewed interest in reviving the original inspiration for Marcel Camus’ Carnival-based Black Orpheus would come from a native filmmaker of note. Not just any filmmaker, mind you, but one of the master craftsmen of the classic Cinema Novo period (and beyond): Alagoan writer-director Carlos “Cacá” Diegues.
Along with Caetano Veloso and other impressionable personalities of their age group, Diegues, whose family relocated to Rio when he was still a young boy, had been fortunate to catch both the musical play and the movie at the time of their respective premieres.
“Seeing that play at the Teatro Municipal as a teenager in 1956 was one of the principal formative cultural experiences of my life,” Cacá revealed to The New York Times. “It not only touched me deeply; it [and Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ Rio 40 graus – ‘Rio 40 Degrees’] made me discover things about Brazilian reality I had not imagined before and helped set me on the road to this life I have as a maker of films.”
Diegues had a less sanguine opinion about the prize-winning 1959 movie version: “Black Orpheus is not an exploitative film. You can see that it was made with real affection and enthusiasm. Camus fell in love with Rio and its culture, but he made a superficial film about something he didn’t really understand.”
In reference to Orfeu, his own later 1999 film adaptation, written in collaboration with Hermano Vianna, Hamilton Vaz Pereira, Paulo Lins (Cidade de Deus – City of God), and João Emanuel Carneiro (Central do Brasil), the director commented to another publication about the unpopularity in Brazil of the first film version of the tale.
“It offered a certain utopian vision of the reality in a Brazilian favela,” Diegues insisted, “and perhaps people of that era could not identify with it. Perhaps prejudice had something to do with it as well. And if middle class people of today associate poverty with crime, imagine in the fifties, when the film by Camus was released.”
Righting the “wrongs” to Orfeu da Conceição (revived in Rio, in 1995, by actor-producer Haroldo Costa, the original protagonist) by treating it as a parable of urban blight, with a mass-cultural outlook and streetwise aesthetic to match — complete with mobile phone devices, deadly drug dealings, police shootouts, and the like — and featuring a hip-hop, rap-flavored funk-music score under the guidance of fellow Northeasterner Mr. Veloso, was paramount to the director’s contrasting in-your-face approach to Camus’ fondly remembered oeuvre.
“My version,” Diegues argued, “is much closer to the play by Vinicius, whose plot was part of the social context of Brazil.”
Closer, yes, but with a crucial difference, one the veteran filmmaker took additional pains to perfect: “Of course, at this point, in 1998 [when Orfeu was still in post-production], it wasn’t exactly the same as Vinicius’ play, as it was written, nor was it the film I imagined when I first saw the play. Much time has passed — the shantytowns aren’t the same, I am not the same, the world is not the same. Even cinema is not the same, so the movie is not the one I would have made in 1956.” That goes without saying. “This is a film about Rio at the end of the century,” he concluded, “not the Rio of 1956.”
Bad mouth the French flick if you must: it was still, in Caetano’s grudgingly honest analysis of the drama, “not only a moving modern and popular version of the Greek myth but also the revelation of the paradisaical country in which it was staged.”
Careful What You Wish For (You Might Just Get It)
Like it or not, there was a downside to Diegues’ long-simmering predilection for putting a more contemporary face to Camus’ idyllic vision of Rio, in that every time a beloved screen classic is redone in another moviemaker’s image — Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes and Peter Jackson’s King Kong are two examples that come to mind — it stands to be compared with the unassailable original. In that regard, Orfeu was no exception.
To put it bluntly, the Orpheus legend happened to be one of those recurring motifs that have managed, in both theory and practice, to adapt themselves almost too readily to other media — most egregiously to the operatic, cinematic, and theatrical art forms.
Why, then, would the maker of such distinguished international screen fare as Xica da Silva, Bye-Bye Brazil, Subway to the Stars, and others, risk his already assured motion-picture legacy on a story that, arguably enough, had been better told by others?
“It would be a serious mistake to see Carlos Diegues’ Orfeu as a remake of Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus,” wrote New York University film scholar Robert Stam, in as much as Latin poet Ovid’s update of the oft-repeated tale, recounted in his compilation Metamorphoses, could hardly be termed a mere replica of his predecessor Virgil’s original retelling.
“It’s keeping Vinicius’s first idea,” granted Caetano Veloso, “bringing the myth of Orpheus to the carioca shantytowns, but the ones existing today: there is a strong sense of realism, but at the same time [it] is very much a myth.”
The words “myth” and “realism,” as used here by Caetano, were the cornerstone of Cacá’s “got-to-get-it-right” project from the start, its primary purpose for being. These themes were explored in the official statement the Brazilian film director issued just prior to his movie’s unsuccessful New York debut in August 2000:
“Brazil’s image abroad had been largely associated with Carmen Miranda’s joyful and exotic extravagance. From 1959 onwards, this image has been replaced by the romanticism of Black Orpheus: a happy people, its back turned toward civilization, living, dancing and singing songs in a dreamy landscape. Since then Brazil has changed significantly, and this is what Orfeu addresses. Brazil has developed; it is now the world’s eighth or ninth largest capitalist economy. Yet, at the same time, it is one of the world’s most socially inequitable societies, with a massive gap between the poor and the rich.”
This corresponds closely to Vinicius’ earliest confrontation with this issue. From the foregoing, then, it would appear that Diegues had taken two giant steps backward in generational time, in acknowledging the appalling lack of progress within Brazil’s socioeconomic sphere as well as conceding to the current dilapidated state of the Brazilian union, so eloquently put forth in the latter half of his essay:
“Abandoned by the government, without urban services, hospitals, schools or any other sort of welfare benefits, [the poor communities on top of Rio de Janeiro’s hills] are today infiltrated by drug dealers who strategically control these impoverished areas, creating a state of constant war with the police and amongst themselves.
“Meanwhile, growth and progress have tamed the anarchy of Rio’s street carnival, turning it into an overpowering, for-profit, televised show that takes place in a stadium… Besides Carnaval, new artistic and musical experiments arise from the favelas: a fusion of traditional samba with hip-hop, a new form of political protest carried out by composers of these communities. And it is within this explosive atmosphere, in this steaming pot of fresh human and cultural experiences that Orfeu takes place.”
At the time of its writing, this kind of socially-minded missive would have fallen predictably on deaf ears, as it had for Orson Welles and Vinicius de Moraes before it. Nevertheless, we can see that it not only had much in common with the carioca poet’s 1956 declaration of his indebtedness to Rio’s black population, but a good deal more to do with Glauber Rocha’s now-classic 1965 treatise “An Aesthetic of Hunger,” an indispensable guide to the Cinema Novo mind-set (“Violence is hunger’s most noble cultural manifestation,” he once touted).
Banished from Diegues’ personalized view of Orfeu were those quaint notions from the country’s nationalistic past, the slogan Brasil, ame-o ou deixe-o (“Brazil, love it or leave it”) for one. In its place was the grim reality of present-day slum life, which poor people couldn’t very well have banished even if they wanted to; filled more than ever before with the stifling cries of hopelessness and despair his friend Vinicius would have been thoroughly appalled at, not to mention all the blemishes and contradictions a megacity-gone-wild could muster. The carioca hills were alive, all right, but with the devastating sounds of gunfire:
“It is an ode to the energy, the love and creativity that survive in the midst of violence and misery, within a complex social web where it is easy to identify injustice, but very hard to differentiate good from evil and to draw the line between them.”
The more things try to change in that persistently troubled corner of the globe, the more stubbornly they cling to life.
(End of Part Three)
* It was said that his favorite songwriting partner, Tom Jobim, once asked how many times The Little Poet intended to marry, to which Vinicius casually replied: “As many as necessary.”