He played with the legendary Brazilian soccer genius Pele before turning to film and playing the lead in “Black Orpheus” — which won the Palme d’Or 50 years ago and an Oscar in 1960.
After a short cinematic career he quit to pursue a different path that finally led him to a modest home and a life of poverty near the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre.
And Breno Mello — whose perf in Marcel Camus’ retelling of the story of the star-crossed lovers Orpheus and Eurydice captivated audiences — was the black actor without whom, just possibly, U.S. President Barack Obama may never have been born.
Now Brazilian filmmakers Alex Derlam and Rene Goya are making a doc about the man of remarkable talents who came from poverty, shone briefly and then returned to reclusive obscurity.
Helped by a Cannes writer and singer-composer Jean Phillipe, a former reporter who has covered the fest for many years, “A Descoberta de Orfeu” (Orpheus’ Discovery) traces Mello’s life.
“I worked as a consultant on a French documentary film, ‘A La Recherche D’Orfeu Negro,’ about ‘Black Orpheus,’ in 2004-2005. Breno Mello was not the subject of the film and in Brazil we were told he was dead, but I didn’t accept that and tracked him down,” Phillipe said.
Using all his Cannes contacts — and government connections in Brazil — Phillipe overcame great odds to bring Mello back to Cannes in 2005 where, remarkably, Pele was also a guest. The two Brazilians had an emotional reunion.
Phillipetracked down Mello in just two months, prompting three years of filming with an initially reluctant Mello. His research also turned up a remarkable link to Barack Obama.
“In his autobiography ‘Dreams of My Father,’ Obama recalls his mother taking him to see ‘Black Orpheus’ — a film she had seen as a young woman — and there is a strong hint that Breno Mello’s performance was a key influence on her later decision to marry a black Kenyan,” said Phillipe. “In effect our film is about a man and a film without whom Barack Obama may never have been born.”
Phillipe, who is repping the doc at Cannes, says the filmmakers are looking for co-producers to complete the film.