The idea of retelling the Orpheus and Eurydice tragedy in the context of the Rio carnival gets a pallid second bigscreen go-round in Carlos Diegues’ “Orfeu.” Attempting to contemporize the classic tale the way Baz Luhrmann did “Romeo and Juliet” but lacking the stylistic chops to pull it off, Diegues has delivered a large but drab production that is woefully low on visual stimulation, musical excitement and emotional pulse. Released in Brazil earlier this year and now launching its fest tour, pic has some foreign selling points in the resonance of the story, the allure of carnival and Diegues’ track record, but it does represent a blown opportunity given the considerable potential a dazzling film on the same subject would have had worldwide.
Diegues has said that Vinicius de Moraes’ “Orfeu da Conceicao,” the musical play that transferred the Greek myth to the Brazilian lower classes, made an enormous impression on him when he saw it as a teenager on opening night in Rio in 1956, and that he does not think of “Orfeu” as a remake of French director Marcel Camus’ hugely successful 1959 film adaptation, “Black Orpheus,” which he considers the work of an “outsider.” All the more reason, then, to be disappointed by the lack of intensity, poetry and vision in his rendition, which prosaically presents characters that require an exalted dimension in stock melodramatic terms.
This time out, Orfeu is a famous and egotistical songwriter and performer (played, plausibly enough, by pop singer Toni Garrido) who maintains his links to the common folk by continuing to live inthe Carioca Hill favela when he could easily move to ritzy digs.
He is also considered the king of carnival, given that his samba school, Unidos da Carioca, has won the top prize for two years running. Currently engaged to the sexy Mira (Isabel Fillardis), Orfeu has seemingly been “engaged,” at one time or another, to every female in the hillside slum, a filthy maze of shacks and steps lorded over by drug dealer Lucinho (Murilo Benicio, brooding and posing Mickey Rourke–style) and his armed urchins, and prone to impromptu raids by bully cops.
Action encompasses five days, from the ramp-up to carnival through Ash Wednesday, but disappointingly little is seen of the frenetic preparation or of the samba school itself, which is ever so briefly visited. Instead, undue time is spent with Orfeu doodling on his computer, singing little ditties or dallying with women — he seems remarkably free given his central role in carnival — before he becomes smitten with newly arrived country girl Euridice (Patricia Franca), who professes no love for carnival and feigns indifference to Orfeu’s charms for some time.
With violence ready to overwhelm Carioca Hill at any moment, Orfeu and Euridice eventually consummate a love that has become overwhelming for both of them, although one would scarcely know it from the commonplace dramatic handling or from the unspirited playing, especially on the part of Franca, a skinny and listless actress whose recessive personality has all the spark of a wet matchbook. As a result, Orfeu’s declarations that she’s the one he’s been waiting for all his life seem half-hearted and far-fetched, thereby preventing the piece’s grandly tragic and eternal dimensions from taking shape.
Also falling way short is the presentation of the carnival itself. Rather than winding anarchically through the streets, the event (which was shot at Carnival ’98) looks like an orderly spectacle staged like a parade primarily for TV cameras, which is exactly the way Diegues boringly photographs it. The dancing is given particularly short shrift, and even the music — an eclectic anthology ranging from classic numbers to Carioca-style rap — fails to entrance in the manner of the best Brazilian sounds.
Pic’s one virtue is the location work in the favela, which provides a credible backdrop rife with desperation and ripe with impending doom. By contrast, the occasional attempts to invoke the transcendent and otherworldly elements essential to the story prove pathetically feeble, which serves as a reminder that Diegues, for all his reputation as a founder of cinema novo and, later, as a reliably commercial filmmaker, has never been a notable visual stylist.