A modern retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the Brazilian import "Orfeu" skits its source material to such a degree that the film becomes little more than a templated ghetto love tragedy set in an exotic locale.
The myth tells the story of a musician who played the lyre so beautifully that no one and nothing could resist his song. When his true love dies from a snakebite, Orpheus is overcome with grief and descends into the Underworld to win her back from the dead with his music. Soothed by Orpheus's melodies, Hades agrees to let Eurydice return to the land of the living, but only if Orpheus leads her to the surface without looking back until they both reach sunlight. Desperate to make sure she's behind him, he blows it, turning around when he emerges out of the ground, condemning Eurydice back to her death.
The Orfeu of the film (Tony Garrido) is Rio de Janeiro's most celebrated samba composer, who lives in a hillside shantytown so as not to forget his roots. He's a handsome, brazen Romeo as famous for his seduction of dozens of girls as he is for being the star performer of the city's famous Carnaval celebration.
Struck with love when a neighbor's beautiful country cousin comes to stay, Orfeu begins a quest to win her dubious heart. But the way Garrido portrays Orfeu's overblown ego turns what should be a poetic romance into a suggestive game of cat and mouse. When Euridice (Patricia Franca) eventually does give in to desire, their love is so underplayed that the audience is left out of the emotion all together.
This is the movie's biggest misstep, but there are several others, including a "West Side Story"-like rivalry that forms between upright Orfeu and Lucinho (Murilo Benicio), his childhood best friend who is now a coke-head gangbanger that sees himself as kingpin of the slums. Lucinho drop-kicks the plot toward the inevitable by trying to use Euridice to silence Orfeu.
The movie's best scenes are long, colorful and noisy episodes that take place at Carnaval -- an idea lifted from a deeply metaphorical 1958 film called "Black Orpheus." This picture is a loose remake of that one, but it fails to capture even a fraction of the original's magic and mystique.