Right around the turn of the millennium, you couldn’t walk into a mid-to-high end home goods store — Anthropologie, for instance, or Pottery Barn — without being pummeled by Bebel Gilberto.  Her light, summery voice became simpatico with overpriced textiles and gewgaws, and store managers piped her into the atmosphere the way some automatic bathroom air fresheners pump out blasts of lilac and freesia.

Oh, Brazil, you’ve given us so much in terms of rhythm and fruit:  batucada, guarana, funk carioca, caipirinha, capoeira, açaí, — not to mention naked soccer players.  But I wonder if it galls to have a large part of your culture presented mostly through intermediaries.  For instance, long before Bebel Gilberto exploded on the scene, I had been listening to bossa nova as filtered through Europe.  It was Brazil processed by trip-hop beats — the more accessible version.

Maybe this is what’s happening in Black Orpheus:  a French director’s film about Brazil, as channeled through a Greek myth.  This is the exotic made palatable — everyday is Carnaval!  No one misses an opportunity to beat out a rhythm on an overturned plastic pail, people move through the streets in conga lines, and even children can play the guitar well enough to raise the sun.

A more recent criticism of Black Orpheus comes from a little-known autobiography entitled Dreams of My Father, in which the author recalls watching the film with his mother:  “I suddenly realised that the depiction of the childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white, middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.”

I can’t say that I disagree.  As a good post-colonialist and strategic essentialist, I struggle with how Asian (particularly Vietnamese) cultures are represented in film and in literature.  It gets tiring trying to assert individuality in the face of archetype and expectation.  Marcel Camus has all the best intentions:  vibrant colors, expressionistic lighting, enough gold lame to catch a whale, Breno Mello shirtless at every turn.  But for all its beauty, Black Orpheus still seems reductionist.  The favelas:  they’re not so bad, if you ignore the occasional firebombings from jealous girlfriends.

So I leave it to film critic Peter Bradshaw to explain how it’s important to remember one’s own context in relation to the film.  It’s a matter too, perhaps, of refusing to be satisfied with the Muzak in the atmosphere exhorting you to consume and discovering, instead, with where a more authentic beauty may reside.  Consider:  receiving something in a processed form may spur a person to discover its more ‘unadulterated’ forms.  I graduated from the pleasant-enough Germans Mo’ Horizons to Otto, Joycé, and Celso Fonseca.  Who’s to say that being exposed to Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfá via Marcel Camus won’t lead to a full immersion in João Gilberto and Caetano Veloso via Walter Salles and Hector Babenco?  Heck, all the Portuguese I’ve learned has been from bossa nova songs.  Felicidade!

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