French director Marcel Camus is something of a one-hit wonder, snagging both the Palm d'Or and Best Foreign Film Oscar with his debut, Black Orpheus (1959), and then slipping into obscurity. Although he's credited with directing eight more movies on Letterboxd, to compare: Black Orpheus has been watched by over 10,000 Letterboxd users and has almost 3000 "likes;" the other 8 have a combined 142 views and a measly 13 likes, with all but two of those "likes" concentrated on one other film. This isn't entirely surprising. Black Orpheus is exactly the kind of novel and inspired lightning-in-a-bottle success story that not only could have easily amounted to nothing, but is nearly impossible to follow-up or replicate.
Camus transplants Greek mythology's tale of separated lovers, Orpheus and Eurydice, into contemporary Brazil during Rio de Janeiro's lively Carnivale festival. His Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) arrives in Rio to visit her cousin Serafina (Léa Garcia), and when she repeatedly encounters Orpheus (Breno Mello) — newly engaged and rehearsing his dance team for the parade — the two fall into fated love. However, the joy of their coupling is short-lived under the double threat of a mysterious stalker who followed Eurydice to Rio and Orpheus' jealous fiancée.
Black Orpheus doesn't fit neatly into any category, which is part of what makes it work so well and yet remain uncopyable: it's not a musical, although there is constant music (by legendary samba composer Antonio Carlos Jobim) and brief singing; it's barely a love story, as it wastes little time on developing or even fulfilling a romance; it's not a "plight of the poor" social realism drama, even though the final 10 minutes might suggest otherwise; it's not even really committed to its take on Greek mythology as anything more than inspirational flavor, with the sprinkling in of character names like Hermes and Cerberus just further colorful details in a movie bursting with color and life.
Although Black Orpheus is beautiful to look at, it's great-looking in a loose, relaxed manner that never threatens to suffocate its precious conceit, kind of like a documentary that just happened to stumble on the perfect subject at the perfect time with a camera that captures something magical even when not deliberately pointed anywhere. Its actors are charming, with a one-dimensionality that anchors the film to the broad strokes of mythology, while the constant rhythm keeps churning them in and out of fleeting moments like an unnavigable current.
Black Orpheus bogs down a bit during its climax, as its expected dark turn (if you know the mythology) eschews the movie's otherwise constant musicality and dips into the stark realism of something like Luis Buniel's Los Olvidados, contemplating the diffidence of life on the margins. The boldest narrative choices in Black Orpheus are its weak spots, when it either shows too much intent or veers into self-seriousness; but it recaptures its infectious spirit in its delightful final moments, remembering that the power of music and dance and life can overcome anything. Not bad for a one-hit wonder.