DVD Shelf Double-Feature: ‘OSS 117: Lost In Rio’ and Criterion’s ‘Black Orpheus”

08.18.10 7 years ago 3 Comments

The Criterion Collection

Rio’s been on my mind lately.

The new script I wrote with my longtime collaborator Scott Swan is set in Brazil, and we spent months researching the country and, specifically, Rio, which is a case study in contradictions.  No other city I can think of makes the distinction between rich and poor so visually dramatic, so geographically symbolic.  You can stand on Copacabana Beach, one of the most beautiful resort destinations on Earth, and stare up past rows of exclusive shops and expensive restaurants at the multi-colored favelas splashed across the hills above the city, poverty packed into carefully controlled areas and shoved out of the way, allowed to run rampant as long as it stays where it “belongs.”

Surprisingly, there aren’t very many great Rio films.  Sure, there’s the searing “City Of God,” and there’s the brutal “Elite Squad,” both of those fairly recent.  But considering the vibrant culture, both high and low, that has always been part of the fabric of the city, ti seems strange how under-represented it is on film.  It’s a tourist spot that films glance over the surface of without ever dealing with the city’s real beating heart.  On a recent evening during my vacation, I decided to watch two films that shared Rio in common, one on DVD, the other on Blu-ray, and in the end, they couldn’t have been more different.

If you didn’t see “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest Of Spies,” you should, but don’t worry about it.  As with the James Bond movie series, you can jump in at any point without really missing anything in terms of continuity.  Back in the Connery era of the Bond films, there were four “OSS 117” movies made by Andre Hunebelle, very much an attempt to cash in on the sudden appetite for spy movies.  But the “OSS 117” character is older than that, dating back to a series of novels that were published starting in 1949, clearing predating Bond.  Considering author Jean Bruce wrote 91 novels in the series, I’d argue he created a far larger body of work than Fleming, although not nearly as significant.  I remember seeing the French films from the ’60s in dubbed TV versions when I was a kid in the ’70s, part of the endless parade of spy movies my dad watched and that I watched with him.  Considering the recent rejuvenation of the James Bond series (at least until MGM crapped the bed and sent everyone packing), you might think this return of the OSS 117 character would be a gritty, parkour-infused, Luc Besson-style Frenchie action thingamaBourne.

Nope.  Michel Hazanavicius and his star Jean Dujardin are goofballs.  and this is straight-up spoof.  They made the first film in 2006, but it took a few years to make its way to the States.  This “new” one is actually from 2009, but it was just released by Music Box Films, and it deals with Nazis, blackmail, alligators, and vengeful Yakuza, with Dujardin playing like someone put young Sean Connery and “Tick”-era Patrick Warburton in the Brundlechamber, then slapped some French on him.  The film doesn’t land every punchline, but it throws so many jokes at the viewer, and so fast, that the hit-to-miss ration more than balances out.  The film looks and feels like an authentic ’60s spy film, and that’s definitely part of what makes me laugh so hard watching it, and it really doesn’t have to strain to get laughs.  The real OSS 117’s name is Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, which will never ever ever been as cool to say as “James Bond,” no matter how much accent you put on it.  It’s an absurd name, and so they don’t change it at all.  This is more true to the thing it’s satirizing than “Black Dynamite” was, and it winks far less.  Dujardin is a clueless caveman, but the film acknowledges that as he blithely offends everyone he deals with.  He’s become one of my favorite comedy stars thanks to these movies now, and I hope to see more of his work as well as many more entries in this series in the future.  This one might not be the equal of the first in the series, but I have faith that they can wring lots more life out of the formula they’ve established now.

The new Criterion Blu-ray of Marcel Camus’s “Black Orpheus” is gorgeous radiant eye candy, and it’s a perfect example of what Criterion still does better than any other home video company.  The film was a major arthouse hit when it was released in 1959, winning awards like the Palm D’or at Cannes and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.  It also sparked controversy that has only grown over time, claiming the film takes a simplistic, even insulting approach to the Brazilian people.  While I think there were plenty of films released that year which have aged better, “Black Orpheus” is significant for the way it introduced much of the world to the passion and the power of the samba and South American culture in general, and taken on the level of fable, it holds up quite well.

Even though the film stars a largely non-professional cast of locals and was shot entirely on location in and around Rio, it’s actually a French film based on a stage play that used the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridyce, lovers undone by the power of their attraction.  Setting the film during Carnival gives Camus permission to make the film as big and broad and theatrical as he wants to, and it means the film is in constant motion, music and dance a perpetual presence.  A young girl, Euridyce (Marpessa Dawn), arrives in Rio on the eve of Carnival, running from a faceless pursuer we only ever see as Death (Ademar Da Silva), and ends up falling in love with Orpheo (Breno Mello), a young man who works as a street trolly conductor during the day, but who is known to everyone in the favelas for his singing and his dancing.  He’s set to marry the beautiful but bossy Mira (Lourdes de Oliviera), but as soon as he meets Euridyce, everything changes.  Their brief, brilliant affair leaves a community in tatters by the time the sun comes up, but Camus wraps things up with a beautiful image that suggests that healing always follows pain, and that there is always more love just around the corner, no matter how much tragedy life may try and heap on us.  The film is both highly stylized and, at times, nearly documentary in approach.  It is not meant to be a film about reality, but there is a weight to Rio that you can’t really fake, and that informs the entire movie.

Criterion’s Blu-ray is a visual marvel, the best print of this film I’ve ever seen, warm and rich and carefully color timed.  The extra features on the disc do an admirable job of laying out a historical context for the film, and also tracing the origins of the project and the way Camus stumbled into making what is genuinely accepted as his one great film.  Archival interviews and new interviews both illuminate various aspects of the film, and a new subtitle translation is far more graceful than the one I remember from the early ’90s laserdisc edition of the movie.  If they managed to eke this kind of image out of “Black Orpheus,” I have a feeling I’m going to lose my mind when I finally get around to the “Black Narcissus” and “The Red Shoes” Blu-rays that I’ve got by the TV right now.

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