Tom Jobim and Vinicius, the Brazilian Odd Couple Who Started It All – Part Two

Original poster for Black Orpheus released in Brazil By now it should be apparent the lone, dissenting voice crying out in the Tijuca-forest wilderness belonged to that of Vinicius de Moraes, the country’s best-known, modern-day bard; and the work that had wreaked such havoc with his fiery temper, if not his high blood pressure, was that of French director Marcel Camus’ Orfeu Negro, or Black Orpheus, his 1959 screen adaptation of Vinicius’ musical play in verse, Orfeu da Conceição (“Orpheus of the Conception”), from 1956.

Filmed on location in Rio between the years 1957 and 1958, and based on a modern reworking – set during the city’s renowned Carnaval celebration – of the ancient Greek tale of poet-musician Orpheus, now transformed into a happy-go-lucky streetcar conductor, and his beloved Eurydice, the joint French-Italian and Brazilian co-production soon took on mythic proportions of its own.

As a cross-cultural phenomenon, for example, it proved an international hit with delighted movie audiences, not only grabbing the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival but sweeping all others before it, including major entries by the likes of Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard, in the Best Foreign Picture category at the following year’s Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.

Though not a homegrown product of Brazil by any means, Black Orpheus nonetheless opened the world’s eyes to the newly emerging Cinema Novo (“New Wave”) movement concurrently taking place there, which was a homegrown product, and about as “close” to the French New Wave as the talkies were to silent films, Vinicius’ other pet passion. (In reality, it had a lot more in common with Italian neo-realism, the European avant-garde and Russia’s pioneering moviemaker, the great Sergei Eisenstein.)

At any rate, it did help draw needed attention to such previously unknown figures as Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Glauber Rocha, Ruy Guerra and Carlos Diegues (more about his individual contributions later on), thus making straight the path to serious cinematic recognition via a cadre of influential reviews and opinions. 

The film also caused real-life poet and musician Vinicius de Moraes no end of controversy, as evidenced by his bringing down the wrath of Zeus onto the hapless Camus and his producer, Sacha Gordine (who had befriended Vinicius during the poet’s stay in Paris), for perpetrating such a travesty of his stage conception, with the deadliest of verbal thunderbolts hurled at screenwriter Jacques Viot – so much so that the Carioca native insisted his name be taken off the credits.

In view of the topnotch qualities of the work itself, why would de Moraes raise such a splendid ruckus over it, especially after previewing the end result in all its prize-winning glory? What did the film world’s most respected award committees see in Camus’ magnum opus that its originator found so offensive and untrue?  

To better comprehend the rage behind the poet’s unforeseen departure in Rio we must look to how the idea for his play first came about – and who better to communicate the history behind it than the Brazilian Renaissance man himself:

“It was around 1942, that I began, one night, after rereading the [Orpheus] myth in an old anthology of Greek myths, to sense the structure of an all-black Carioca tragedy subtly taking shape [before me]. The legend of the artist whose power over music was such that he was able to descend into the Netherworld and bring back his lost love Eurydice…could most definitely be transported to a Rio de Janeiro shanty town.

“I started to jot my vision down into a few verses, which then became a full act, finalizing it just as the sun rose over Guanabara, now visible through the window. It was another six years after that, while living in Los Angeles, that I was able to add the last two acts, and even later [1953], after misplacing the third and having to rewrite it, in Paris, before it was completed.”

 – Vinicius de Moraes, in the preface to the book Orfeu da Conceição: A Carioca Tragedy, Rio de Janeiro, 1960.

In 1954, at the urging and insistence of his good friend, the poet João Cabral de Mello Neto, Vinicius entered the finished draft of his play in a contest commemorating the Fourth Centennial Celebration of the founding of the city of São Paulo. It won the top prize.

Notwithstanding that fact, Vinicius’ representation of the Thracian minstrel Orpheus as an Afro-Brazilian of suitably “humble” origins (the direct result of his friendship with American writer and social critic, Waldo Frank), and Jobim’s depiction of favela (“slum”) life through the pulsating sounds of 1950s street samba, were not as novel a choice of material as might initially have been suggested by the above writings.

According to musicologist Richard Taruskin, in The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume Three: The Nineteenth Century, it was clear the allegorical Greek figure was the subject of numerous elaborate stage treatments long before de Moraes got a hold of his mythical lyre: “Orpheus was present…at the creation of opera. Several of the earliest ‘musical tales’ that adorned Northern Italian court festivities in the early seventeenth century were based on his myth.”

Taruskin then took this notion a step further, emphasizing his strongly-held belief that

“The Orpheus myth was a myth of music’s ethical power, the supreme article of faith for all serious musicians…whenever the need was seen to reassert high musical ideals against frivolous entertainment values.”

That might have worked for opera’s founding fathers, but how would it play with Rio’s common folk? Indeed, whatever “high musical ideals” our serious-minded Brazilian poet intended for his poor-bound black Orpheus would have to wait, due to his participation in some of those very same “frivolous entertainment values” Taruskin had just railed against.

In essence, what Vinicius had failed to recount for readers were the subliminal influences the work of another close companion would have on the final scope and scenario of his play.

(To be continued…)

Joe Lopes, a naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, was raised and educated in New York City, where he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his wife and daughters. In 2001, he returned to the U.S. and now resides in North Carolina with his family. He is a lover of all types of music, especially opera and jazz, as well as an incurable fan of classic and contemporary films. You can email your comments to


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