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Brazilian magic: Art transforms translation of myth in 'Orfeu'

Friday, October 27, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"Orfeu," now at the Denis Theater, is a movie of contrasts -- the beauty of Rio against its ramshackle slums, the joy of Carnival against the fear of police crackdowns, the sunny romance of the samba against the grim inevitability of mythic characters.


RATING: Not rated.

STARRING: Toni Garrido, Patricia Franca.

DIRECTOR: Carlos Diegues.

CRITIC'S CALL: 2 stars.


The story of Orpheus and Eurydice began with the ancient Greeks -- he would literally go to hell and back for the woman he loved. Brazilian writer Vinicius de Moraes wrote a play that set the story in his country. Frenchman Marcel Camus filmed it in 1959 as "Black Orpheus."

Now, director Carlos Diegues ("Bye Bye Brazil") takes a crack at it. In this version, Orfeu (Toni Garrido) is Rio's most renowned samba composer. Euridice (Patricia Franca) has just moved to Rio's Carioca Hill slum from the country.

Orfeu is immediately smitten but Euridice holds back. As he prepares his samba school to compete at Carnival, daily life goes on in Carioca Hill. The cops hunt down drug dealers but can never lay their hands on the kingpin, Lucinho (Murilo Benecio), a childhood friend of Orfeu. He has his own deadly ragtag army. Meanwhile, jealous women resent Euridice for taking Orfeu out of action.

Diegues tries to capture both the scenic and the squalid side of Rio, but can never quite make it lowdown enough. Carioca Hill comes off as a colorful rabbit warren of hills and steps and huts, filled with life. The cops seem more dangerous than anyone else, except for Lucinho when someone crosses him. In his most chilling scene, he comes off more as a vigilante for the neighborhood than as a threat to its well-being.

Orfeu adds a mythic quality -- the local kids think his beautiful music makes the sun rise, and he does nothing to disillusion them. Even the cops don't mess with him. He can even mix samba with hip-hop. No wonder he struts like a god. But he will have to pay in the end.

Maybe it's only fitting that the artfulness wins out despite the unevenness of the acting and the inevitable tragic climax. If you're going to set a myth in Rio during Carnival, how can the city come off as anything but magical?

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