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More Than 40 Years Later, a Promise Kept

Movies * In the '50s, Carlos Diegues was transfixed by 'Orfeu,' a play about Brazil's black culture, and he vowed to bring it to the big screen.


As a 15-year-old boy, Carlos Diegues had an epiphany while watching a play. He sat intently in the darkened theater viewing a handsome black Brazilian named Orfeu fall into a doomed love affair with a beautiful and poor young black woman named Eurydice. They were surrounded by as much poverty and destitution as their joy and passion.

"Orfeu de Conceicao," written by beloved poet and diplomat Vinicius de Moraes, was groundbreaking. The play was written in 1956, a time in Brazil when black culture and black protagonists in movies and plays were kept out of the limelight. It was a time when many white Brazilians saw their country as "a European country in exile" as Diegues puts it. De Moraes was showing Diegues an African Brazil--a country he didn't know anything about.

"It was amazing," the Academy Award-winning director of "Bye Bye Brazil," recalled recently during an interview in Los Angeles. "It was one of the most important experiences I had in my life. It was a discovery of a certain culture and music."

Right then, Diegues vowed he would make a movie based on the play. Forty-two years later, his dream came true; in 1999, Diegues' "Orfeu" was completed and released in his native land. A record 1.1 million Brazilians turned out to see it. The film will be released today in Los Angeles.

The movie features some of Brazil's hottest music and film stars, including Toni Garrido, lead singer of the popular group Cidade Negra (Black City), with a score by veteran composer Caetano Veloso. The film is a tragic love story, but it also shows how black culture and art has become a mainstream part of everyday life in Brazil.

"The black culture in Brazil has won," said Diegues.

The story of Orpheus, a gifted musician with a terrible fate, was based on the Greek myth. It is a story that has been adapted to film several times, including Jean Cocteau's "Orphee" in 1950 and Marcel Camus' sweet-natured version, "Black Orpheus," which was loosely based on de Moraes' play. But for American audiences familiar with the 1959 Camus film, the current "Orfeu" may come as a shock. The filmmaker emphasizes that it is not a remake.

Set in a contemporary Brazilian slum--called a favela--"Orfeu" tells the story of the doomed lovers, with the ecstasy of Carnaval and the tragedy of living in a slum as the backdrop. As Diegues explains, Brazil is one of the world's most socially inequitable societies. This has given way to a constant state of tension where "despair walks hand in hand with wealth, the archaic with the modern, violence with creativity and tragedy with joie de vivre."

The love affair between Orfeu and Eurydice is surrounded by the modern problems plaguing favelas--Uzi-toting drug dealers, out-of-control cops and the helpless residents trying to scratch out a decent existence.

"What I've tried to make is a film about passion and the consequences of passion and how it goes when you are living in such a brutal environment," said Diegues, a bear of a man who has the patience and thoughtful nature of a veteran filmmaker. He speaks in a slow, deliberate manner, while sprinkling his conversation with blunt observations.

"Rio's slums are a paradox. They are a social shame of misery but also a cultural treasure of new music and way of living," he continued. "This film is an ode to creativity and energy that people keep inside that miserable social web [they live in]."

Many Brazilians Detested Original

Five years ago the de Moraes family bought the rights back from Camus' relatives and then offered the story to Diegues. He immediately accepted the offer and ventured to restore what he saw as the original intent of the de Moraes' play into film.

Although Marcel Camus' film was a tremendous international hit, winning the best foreign film Oscar, most Brazilians familiar with the original play detested it, believing it to be a caricature of Brazilians, according to Diegues.

"When I saw Camus' film I was so disappointed. I took it as a personal offense," recalled Diegues. "It was so different from what I saw on the stage. The Vinicius play was a story about the greatest passion taking place in an environment of social injustice and misery. And suddenly Camus' film was about these Brazilians singing and dancing all the time. Even death was metaphysical and abstract."

Diegues is one of many Brazilian filmmakers, including Walter Salles of "Central Station," who have tried through their films to erase the Carmen Miranda image of Brazil.

"Brazilian cinema is not a genre," he said. "Little by little, film by film, people will understand what Brazil is really all about."

Diegues spent two years researching the film, interviewing the police who patrol the area, the drug dealers and families living in the slums. He often spent the night there. Although most of the scenes are shot in real slums, Diegues' crew constructed a set to shoot some of the more complicated and violent scenes.

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