The Legend of Ashima and its Cinematic Translation

Opera per cinema (Zeffirelli, Polanski, et al) seems the most compelling means to do re-establish the atmosphere of legend-telling, and perhaps will remain so indefinitely, significantly more potent than opera per se in the great breadth of camera takes and of color-shading it commands.

But within this latter, as a subcategory with by far the most opportunity for retelling legend as symbolic and therefore universal (that is, cross-linguistic) speech, one needs to call attention to possibility of the vernacular resetting of an/the ur-legend into an exotic (but not thus despised) almost-real re-telling.

Sadly, I have not found a way of indexing or cataloging films across the globe (reader’s help please) that do so, but there s one particular, epoch (and genre-) casting film that DOES this. It is of course Orfeo Negro (1959), which subsumes the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice within the unfolding of the Rio de Janeiro Carnival (of 1959!).

All the pieces of the genre are there – perhaps uniquely, perhaps not. Place and moment SEEM “known”, but gradually wander into the world of dream and nightmare, as “Orfeo” works his way the catacombs of an unidentified Danteesque office edifice, meets his guiding Charon, then blunders into a shamanic seance lured by ventriloquy to “dream” that his lost beloved is singing. The journey from where/there to nowhere. Since nowhere (which is say Hell/Oblivion) cannot be entered or left with baggage, we know that his paramour’s return is to say the least problematic. She can only reemerge as no-one, though this horrible truth is compromised (via tears,song, and relenting) by a seasonal epiphany.

The slaying is also un-anchored: at the hand of an unidentified (archtyped) masked man-in-black, suggesting capricious Fate or inscrutable preordination, exactly the sort of thing that the heroes of the Greco-Roman epics are (in Homer anyway) meant to negotiate in their quests. As Charles Stein (Odyssey, 2009?) reminds us, the stories – BECAUSE legends – have no real end in time or place. They may or may not be verified in geography or even century: “fate” is no more than what happens. Inexplicably. But of course this needs to be so, else the sense of cosmic imponderability and its stepchild, the miracle, be stamped out. Just so, the end of Orfeo’s quest is via a miracle of transubstantiation: a imp-child and his companion take up the ritual of singing the sun (Apollo) to rise by reiteration the lyric emblemizing the grand enabling (but also lamenting) ritual “chant” manhã de carnaval, janus-faced in that “the morning/start” is inverted by its extension amanhã (the morning of the day following) to mean that what starts predicts its end.


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