Today marks the kick-off of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Not that the path to these Olympics has been a smooth one. What with political turmoil, economic meltdown, crime in the streets, and garbage in the bay, the 31st Olympiad may not exactly be a triumph. (Then there’s the Zika virus, and the Russian doping scandal, and the threat of terrorism: I could go on and on.) But why not think positive? Rio is known to be a beautiful city, despite it all, and who can resist the meeting of the world’s greatest athletes? And, come what may, I’ll always have the Rio of the movies.
The first movie I know that features at least a fantasy version of Brazil’s many charms is a 1933 pre-code musical from RKO, Flying Down to Rio. It stars (yup!) Dolores del Rio as part of a romantic triangle, but is more famous for introducing the great duo of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. When Astaire and Rogers slither through the Carioca, their foreheads touching, screen history is made. If Rio seems the home of romance in this film, it looks even sexier in a full-color romp called That Man from Rio, a lively French spy spoof featuring authentic Brazilian locations and the delightfully rumpled Jean-Paul Belmondo. Twenty years later, the city of Rio was featured in a mild American sex comedy, Blame it on Rio. (Though Michael Caine, director Stanley Donen, and writer Larry Gelbart were all involved, it didn’t make many waves.)
Brazil of course has its own active film industry. Most of the titles are unfamiliar, but some have definitely made their presence felt on the international circuit. One is a sexy comedy from 1976: Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. This story of a woman torn between a proper gentleman and a sexy layabout (who returns to her as a ghost) made a star of Sonia Braga.
Several of the most highly regarded Brazilian films tackle life in the country’s picturesque but toxic slum neighborhoods. One is Pixote (1981), which focuses on a ten-year-old runaway struggling to survive on the streets of São Paulo. Its director, Hector Babenco, would later go on to direct Sonia Braga, Raul Julia, and the Oscar-winning William Hurt in an inventive prison drama, 1986’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. In 2002, Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund directed an even more brutal story, one that features Rio’s rival street gangs, Called City of God, it captures the toll taken on the lives of young people who grow up in a violent culture.
But I want to end on gentler note, with an Oscar-winning film that has always symbolized Brazil for me. Black Orpheus (originally Orfeu Negro) dates all the way back to 1959. Its director, Marcel Camus, was French, but in staging the ancient Greek love story of Orpheus and Eurydice (and setting it against the phantasmagoric excitement of Carnaval), he went to the streets of Rio in search of potential actors. Interestingly, several he found were athletes. Breno Mello, who played Orpheus, was a soccer player. And Adhemar da Silva, in the key role of Death, had won Olympic gold medals in the triple jump in 1952 and 1956.
Orpheus in the Greek original was a musician, and it is the film’s music that most sticks with me now. Antônio Carlos Jobim was involved, and guitarists the world over now make Theme from Black Orpheus part of their repertoire.
Black Orpheus was the very favorite film of Barack Obama’s mother. Who knows how it helped change history?
Anyway, let the games begin!