The Breno Mello of "Black Orpheus"

Susan Gerhard January 3, 2007

A smile-beaming trolley conductor confidant in his duties hoisting up beautiful women to board his train to Babilonia, actor Breno Mello as appears on top of the world as Orpheus in French director Marcel Camus’ “Black Orpheus.” He is on top, nearly literally, since Babilonia is, in this case, the mountain-high favela hosting French director Marcel Camus in an ethnographic, 1959 bossa nova adventure through Carnival. And the destination lives up to its ancient vibe, given the story is the reworking of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice for the jazz-hep world cinema audience of its time. Mello, the train conductor whose guitar and smile can raise the sun and melt all hearts, also happens to be at the top of his game. A former professional soccer player for Santos in Brazil, Mello transferred his physical skills to film sets, this particular one being the opening to a half-dozen more.

It was an auspicious debut: The film would win the 1959 Palme d’Or at Cannes and the 1960 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Its soundtrack — adapted from the original stage version of the story — introduced the wider world to the pan-African rhythms of Brazil. But its star would be lost to history until the next century, when documentarians examining the film’s musical roots and implications in their “A la recherche d’Orfeu negro,“ found Mello living humbly and outside media notice in Porto Alegre. That doc brought Mello out of anonymity and to the Cannes Film Festival, where it played in 2005. Backstory enriched, the Camus film itself — which would be later be criticized, notes Moviediva, for its exoticization of slum life, its source material remade into the now rentable Brazilian feature “Orfeu” in 1999 — is being rediscovered in theaters (home and public) with a new print and Criterion packaging. it plays the Castro Theatre through Thursday, Jan. 4 and is available through the Criterion Collection.