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By Lee Gardner | Posted

If any one film has defined Brazil for generations of filmgoers around the world, it's 1959's Black Orpheus. Based on a play by Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes that sets the Greek myth of Orpheus in the favelas (the hillside slums of Rio de Janeiro), Black Orpheus has always been bittersweet for Brazilians. Though the film helped launch the bossa nova phenomenon, the French filmmakers bungled the realities and subtleties of Brazilian life. In 1999, veteran director Carlos Diegues (Bye Bye Brazil) set out to set things right with Orfeu, a homegrown update/rework of de Moraes' play. Diegues' Orfeu (Tony Garrido) is the top samba star in Rio and a big man in his home favela. His love for innocent country girl Eurídice (Patricia França) inspires him musically and personally, but it also stokes jealousies among his old paramours and sparks long-simmering troubles with the local drug lord (Murilo Benício) and the brutal Rio cops. Orfeu does a much better job than Black Orpheus of depicting the realities of modern Brazil, though Diegues never quite resolves the film's endemic conflicts between allegory and reality, or between hard-hitting urban drama and over-the-top melodrama. Like the Carnival celebration that provides its backdrop, Orfeu is colorful, musical, passionate, and wildly diverting, even if it ultimately offers escape rather than substance. In Portuguese with English subtitles.

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