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A Green World

Bahia directed by Marcel Camus at the Orson Welles

By Gay Seidman

IN MANY WAYS, Marcel Camus's Black Orpheus was a revelation for American audiences. Surrounding a Greek myth with the swirling colors of a Brazilian carnival made the story completely universal; Camus's film gave the tragedy new depth, and audiences could not resist its graceful sadness.

Camus could have done the same thing in Bahia, his sixth film since Orpheus. Like Orpheus, Bahia takes a rather simple story, sets it in Brazil with beautiful camerawork, music and color. But the main story is a comedy, ending in marriage instead of death; it is complicated by subplots, colorful but distracting; and its climax does not have the heart-wrenching power of the Orpheus myth. In the end, Bahia is a very pretty, very joyous movie, but it is not a masterpiece.

Bahia revolves--more or less--around the tale of two lovers. Otelia, a beautiful young girl (Mira Fonesca), comes to Bahia, a spectacularly beautiful area on the Brazilian coast, to work in a brothel. There she meets Martim (Antonio Pitanga), a handsome young member of Bahia's cheerfully disreputable fringe element. By the end of the movie, her simple adulation--she is young enough to clutch a rag doll to her--has won him over from the wiles of more sophisticated women. And so the two are married, surrounded by their friends.

Camus presents the characters in Bahia as "God's poor--that is, they are completely poverty-stricken, but rich in friends." They live in a squatter village near the beach, outside the normal realm of the world. They are always happy: always dancing, never hungry, never worried about what tomorrow will bring. This is a myth, after all; if Curio (Paco Sanches)--who wears a clown's makeup and sighs constantly after blondes--is slightly unbelievable, well, so is every other character in Bahia.

But Camus clearly means it to be that way. When the good guys--the disreputable but endearing group of squatters on the beach--fight with the police, who are trying to evict the good guys from their village, no one gets hurt. The police are easily defeated, and the victors celebrate happily. It is all obviously staged, obviously a joke. Nothing in Bahia is quite real; even the acting is wooden and shallow. It is all a little too painless, too bawdily carefree, for the audience to quite believe in it.

THIS IS A COMEDY, with a happy ending snatched out of the fire at the last moment. Just as the young, pure Otelia is about to die for love of Martim, he returns for the wedding, and they appear to live happily ever after. It may well be that such completely happy endings, unmarred by worldly considerations, are possible only in mythical worlds.

In the world outside Bahia, nothing is quite so perfect; Camus seems to be suggesting that such happiness could not happen here in the real world--where the poor do worry about getting enough to eat, and don't often beat back the police--and that placing a romantically happy ending in realistic surroundings would be as unrealistic as giving us Bahia's complete happiness.

Camus's Bahia is something like the green world of the second half of A Winter's Tale, where nothing can possibly go wrong--to the point where a woman who has been dead for 25 years comes magically to life. Happiness, Camus seems to be saying, is as mythical as Orpheus, and even less likely to materialize.

But it doesn't really work. Camus's viewpoint is a little too hard to see; as a result, it is largely unconvincing. It is hard to imagine an American audience giving itself up to pure enjoyment of the scenery and the gaiety. Bahia is an idyllic world, where even whores can demand the right to love; it is not a world that reflects our own experience, and it is difficult to take it all seriously. Bahia is gay, joyous, beautiful, but it is not believable. And in the end, it isn't really satisfying, either.

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