Black Orpheus and the Merging of two Brazilian Nations

Posted in Articles, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Social Science on 2012-03-31 18:06Z by Steven

Black Orpheus and the Merging of two Brazilian Nations

European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Number 71, October 2001
pages 107-115

Myrian Sepúlveda dos Santos, Associate Professor of Sociology
State University of Rio de Janeiro

The second cinematic remake of the play ‘Orfeu da Conceição’ has sparked a new debate among filmmakers and social scientists, bringing out opposing views on major aspects of Brazilian nationhood, such as race relations, bodily practices and the meaning of Carnival. The Brazilian poet Vinícius de Moraes wrote the original play, which was presented for the first time in Rio de Janeiro in 1956. This play is about a tragic love affair between two black characters, Orpheus and Eurydice, posed against the background of carnival in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Orpheus is a gifted musician who meets Eurydice during carnival. It so happens that after falling in love with Orpheus, Eurydice is killed by a man who represents the devil. The desperate Orpheus descends into Hell to rescue her. When he comes back home with the corpse of Eurydice, Mira, who was his former lover, kills him. Central to the play is the defence of the eternity of art set against the tragic reality of life.

Two films were produced based on this same play, and both directors claim to reveal the universal meaning of art against the background of a carnival feast associated with the Brazilian black population. The films were produced in 1959 and 1998. The first, Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro) was directed by the French filmmaker Marcel Camus. It is mainly recognised for its utopian view in which love and passion, race relations and carnival are represented. The second film, entitled Orfeu, was directed by the Brazilian filmmaker Cacá Diegues, and has been praised for its commitment to the description of reality. In it, Diegues explored the commodification of bodies, racial conflicts, and the commercialisation of the carnival feast. This director previously belonged to the important movement of Brazilian filmmakers known as cinema novo, which tried to transform cinematic industrial productions into critical and artistic productions. He is also the director of acclaimed Brazilian films such as Bye Bye Brasil, Xica da Silva and Tieta. In his Orpheus film, Diegues used a set of sophisticated cinematic techniques in order to give the illusion of reality. While making the screenplay, he worked with an excellent group of intellectuals and cast many well-known celebrities of Rio’s cultural life rather than using professional actors.

As the latter production was not well received by international film critics, the Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso wrote a challenging article in the New York Times defending the recent remake. Veloso criticised the former internationally acclaimed version of the play for depicting Brazilians as exotics using outrageously fanciful colours and the general ‘voodoo for tourists’ ambience (Veloso 2000). Indeed, the film directed by Marcel Camus did win the Oscar for the Best Foreign Film and the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It was considered the Best Foreign Film and the Best Film, respectively, by the New York Film Critics’ Circle and by the British Academy. In 1960 it received the Golden Globe Award. The acclaimed version of Black Orpheus attempted to produce an ageless representation of art and it fascinated foreign audiences. According to Veloso, however, the film was not well considered by Brazilians.Veloso happened not only to be the author of the soundtrack of the second film, but he also appeared in a short scene in this film, and his wife was one of the producers.

Despite his involvement with the production of the film, Veloso is absolutely right as he points out that although the first production is capable of completely engaging a foreign audience, the ambience of fun and happiness among all the characters is not attractive to most citizens of Rio. For them any possibility of self-recognition in the story diminishes from the earliest scenes. For most Brazilians, the first production seems to be one more in a long list of those commodities that were made para inglês ver, that is, produced according to a foreign idealization of Brazilian customs and dress. Therefore, the musician called attention not only to the diversity of interpretations, but also to the power associated with the different forums that appraise and legitimate the meaning of art. However, to what extent is it possible to affirm that whereas the first film is a mere fairy tale, the second fulfils the task of depicting reality? In addition, how are we to understand the influence of two different historical contexts upon these two films?

In this paper, I will investigate the two cinematic productions, considering them as part of processes that took place within different historical periods. In particular, I will be examining the issues of race relations and bodily pleasures within carnival, as they appear to be overriding in both versions of the play. I will consider that although each film can be seen as part of its respective time, they both represent two one-sided versions of the meaning of carnival practices in the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Whereas the first production was produced at the end of the 1950s when the Brazilian ideal of racial democracy was widely accepted, the second was produced at the end of the 1990s when mass media, violence and the rights of ethnic minorities constituted the political agenda of our times. In the second film, from the earliest scenes the focus is on poverty, shootings and injustice. The poor neighbourhood located on the hillsides of the city is continually invaded by brutal police forces, and Eurydice is senselessly killed by the leader of the drug trafficking gang. The decomposing corpses thrown at the edge of the hillside by drug dealers represented Hell…

…From Racial Democracy to Multiculturalism

On the subject of race relations in Brazil, the two cinematic productions of the Greek legend offer two dramatically different approaches. With its all-black cast, the first film brought about a remarkable revolution in the complex racial relations of Brazil. Even so, the cinematic images portray Rio’s natural beauty, the mesmerising sound of drums, and the festive manifestations of life, romanticising the conflict present among the poor and black population that inhabits the hillsides of the city. The film was produced at a time when the myth of racial democracy in Brazil was held, and it reinforced the myth. The more recent production is also very much a product of its time. It portrays racial conflict through the medium of racially radical rap lyrics as well through the images of a white man being executed by a group of predominantly black drug traffickers.

A series of studies developed in the 1970s completely transformed the contemporary approaches to race relations in Brazil as they showed that despite widespread miscegenation, race remained an important indicator of privilege in Brazilian society. Furthermore, they showed that blacks continue to occupy the lower rungs of the socio-economic scale (Hasenbalg 1979). This is a social and political issue that confronts citizens to this day. Based on these studies, many analyses of race relations concluded that the image of Brazil as a racially democratic nation is a fantasy essentially constructed either by the dominant classes or by the Brazilian elite. Based on the assertion that the myth of racial democracy obscures discrimination, many authors maintain that black people need to build their own identities separate from white values and beliefs. According to their analyses there would be an evolving process of ‘racialisation’ whereby Brazilian race relations would become more transparent (Guimarães 2000)…

Nevertheless, if it is true to say that, regardless of the social class to which black people belong, there is prejudice against them in Brazil, it is also true to say that to this day it is almost impossible to represent the majority of the Brazilian population in terms of a strict code of race. I would risk saying that, although the North-American dual model of race is beginning to be appropriated by some groups of the black movement in Brazil, the racial code, which would easily consider those to be of black or of African descent by either European or North American standards, is far from being recognised by the majority of the Brazilian population. Discrimination in Brazil does not occur according to the same mechanisms as it does in the United States. The idea of miscegenation is still widespread in Brazil. Although it involves exclusion of dark-skinned people and represents the mechanism by which racism operates, it also entails a wider acceptance of different cultures, values and beliefs. The Brazilian population defines itself according to more than three hundred terms that relate to race and colour. Although Brazilians are people who see themselves according to multiple definitions, including the opposition between blacks and whites, they are far from being limited to them.

It is also important to point out that the idea of miscegenation has been part of the idea of the nation since the 1930s. It is widely recognised that a new national identity was formulated during Getúlio Vargas’ populist government. This new identity promoted the image of a harmonious and homogeneous whole capable of including all citizens regardless of race, ethnic origins or colour. The imagery of the nation was constituted as the composite of diverse cultural elements such as samba, carnival, and feijoada, all of which are associated with the ‘Brazilian’ population. The Brazilian construction of nationalism conflated the ideas of miscegenation and nation, and this conflation can be considered as the result of a process of negotiation that has not yet been completely concluded.

Myths are not abstract constructions. They are continually manifested through the ways in which most Brazilians define themselves and interact with one another. Gilberto Freyre was one of the authors who first described in positive terms the process of widespread criss-crossing among different social and cultural populations. However, although Freyre has been praised for having pointed out that the blending process in Brazil was highly inclusive (Freyre 1930), he has not been sufficiently criticised for failing to call attention to the fact that the process of inclusion was often cynical and ambivalent. The process of inclusion did not include black people in the same way and in the same arenas as it did for white people. The recognition and positive values attributed to Brazilian miscegenation came with a series of other mythologies, such as the belief in the goodness of progressive whitening and the association between blacks and all sorts of hedonism. One should not overlook the resulting violence and inequalities that have occurred as a result of those contexts…

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