All This, and Rio Too!
All the dramatic weight of Cacá Diegues’ Orfeu production fell onto the shoulders of one Antonio Bento da Silva Filho, known widely to world-music fans by his stage name, Toni Garrido, the charismatic young star of the samba-reggae group Cidade Negra, or “Black City” — a multi-talented composer and performer from the Baixada Fluminense suburb of Rio de Janeiro, who lent the arduous assignment an unaccustomed air of authenticity.
“I didn’t need a laboratory to learn about the reality this film portrays,” Garrido offered to reviewers. “I’m a black guy who was born in a favela… I understand the favela’s code of honor and… what it means to be a poor dude who lives for his art and sees it as a springboard to better things. I was able to draw on a life experience that is essential to the poetic sensibility of the film.” Well put!
Indeed, Garrido’s focus on the artistic soul of the divine Thracian minstrel fell directly into line with what Dr. Lúcia Nagib, an Associate Professor of Film History and Theory, in Campinas, had later underscored in her book The New Brazilian Cinema: Orfeu’s one chance for “redemption and his [only] way out of misery,” she tells us, “[is] through art, through myth and/or through the media.”
“Orfeu is a poet,” Garrido let on, “a person who wants… better things for the shantytown, through culture, art, etc. He is passionate and happy with his life. I have the [goal] of making this Orfeu more beautiful because I know how important he was to Vinicius.” The Little Poet would have been pleased.
About the challenges facing the novice movie actor, director Diegues, with an almost fatherly concern for his choice, had this to add: “He was the one who had all the elements to be the Orfeu that we imagined. Toni doesn’t have to interpret the role of Orfeu. He is Orfeu, and the fact that he is a musician means that he can project onto the screen all the nobility and poetry of Brazilian popular music.”
Maybe so, but if that was his sole argument for casting a non-professional as the lead in his new picture, not every critic bought into it, finding the swarthy pop singer an impressive but emotionally bland figure throughout and, therefore, rather lacking in the depth of expression the pivotal part required, especially in his key scenes with the smoldering Murilo Benício as the drug lord.
The fate of Toni’s one and only star turn (to date) was no different from that of former futebol player-turned-aspiring film idol Breno Mello, whose athletically refined features embodied Black Orpheus to perfection in Marcel Camus’ idealized visualization of this “mythical national character,” as Nagib refers to him in her book. He went on to appear in very little else, I’m sorry to say, this being the first of a relatively minor handful of screen sojourns for Breno.*
One must admit that, while these two exceptionally fine specimens were physically too marvelous for words, they were both as stiff as boards, with the added distraction of Mello’s voice and guitar playing having been all-too obviously dubbed by others — not a problem for Garrido, who brought his own singing and strumming skills to the role.
(End of Part Seven)
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes
* Mello made five more flicks — all of them flops! — before returning to his preferred sport. His excuse was that “the Brazilian film industry was not rich enough to support [me].” He was married twice and left five children at his death on July 14, 2008 at age seventy-six, in his hometown of Porto Alegre. His co-star, Marpessa Dawn (born Gypsy Marpessa Dawn Menor, near Pittsburgh) followed him a little more than a month later, on August 25, at her home in Paris. She was seventy-four. A dancer, bit player, one-time governess, and sporadic nightclub entertainer, Dawn was also twice married — her first, to the director of the film that brought her instant fame, Marcel Camus — with five children of her own, in addition to four surviving grandchildren.