If you are seeking diversity in plot and setting, characters who don’t sound as though they have jumped out of a PowerPoint presentation, and a narrative style that escapes the fetters of the three-act structure, the Best Foreign Language Film category is often a far better place to look than Best Picture.
Over the years, several foreign films that present vastly different and often more interesting ways of telling stories have been granted Oscar glory, boosting their chances for recognition and distribution among the audiences that lie beyond the cinephilia circuit. Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini won four in his lifetime for movies that no Hollywood studio executive would green-light, including 8½ and Amarcord. While many of the foreign title winners do tend to be safe bets and cursed, almost, with a “universal appeal” quality, this year’s nominations include a range of styles and concerns, from the Holocaust-era drama Son of Saul to the Amazon jungle-set Embrace of the Serpent.
In 1960, the Academy Awards gave the gong to an inventive and sensuous retelling of the legendary myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus, based on Vinicius de Moraes’s play Orpheus of the Conception, relocates the classic Greek tale of the singer who tries to bring back his dead wife from the dead to the favellas of Rio de Janeiro. Camus takes full advantage of the Brazilian Carnival setting: in the opening frame, a classical relief work is shattered by the verve of a rambunctious procession of revellers. Among them is Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), who is fleeing a human avatar of Death. She tumbles into the arms of the handsome bus conductor and singer Orpheu (Breno Mello), and they start a passionate affair even though he is engaged to Mira.
Orpheus is a working-class dreamer who is aware of the legacy behind his name. “There was an Orpheus before me and there may be another one after I am gone, but for now, I’m the boss,” he declares before strumming a tune. One of the best-known movie adaptations of the myth was Orphee, by Jean Cocteau, in 1950 and set in contemporary Paris.
The energy levels wind down when the prophecy concerning Eurydice comes true. In one of many simple yet powerful sequences that perfectly produce the desired effect, Orpheu tries to save Eurydice from the Department of Lost Souls, and makes his way down a deeply symbolic winding staircase.
Red is one of the movie’s favoured colours, while a less subtle colour preference is evident from the casting of the main actors. Dawn and Mello, an athlete who had never acted before, are perfectly matched in body and beauty, and are proud and convincing leads who take their place in a long line of doomed screen lovers across cultures, religions and races.