Although this won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, ironically it is not terribly well regarded in its native Brazil where some object to the depiction of their country as being a non-stop party.
Barack Obama notes in his memoir Dreams from My Father (1995) that it was his mother's favourite film. Obama, however, didn't share his mother's preferences upon first watching the film during his first years at Columbia University: "I suddenly realized that the depiction of the childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad's dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white, middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different."
Breno Mello was a soccer player with no acting experience at the time he was cast as Orfeu. Mello was walking on the street in Rio de Janeiro, when Marcel Camus stopped him and asked if he would like to be in a film.
Shooting on location did not come without its share of challenges. Marcel Camus, already on a limited budget, quickly ran out of money. According to an interview he gave to Time Magazine, in order to cut corners, Camus took to pinching pennies on meals and sleeping on the beach rather than in hotels. When he was down to his last $17, Brazil's then president Juscelino Kubitschek helped Camus procure some filming equipment from the country's army in order to help the production out. "The poverty was not such a bad thing in the long run," said Camus. "I spent so much time trailing around on foot, just looking, that in the end I had a deep awareness of Brazil. With money, I would never have made the same film. Everything would have been done too quickly."
Marcel Camus shot the film entirely on location in Brazil with his cast and crew of mostly local talent. Camus wanted to capture the dramatic landscapes around Rio and the vibrant sounds and colors of the area, infusing the film with a kinetic energy set to the constant throbbing beat of samba music.
A young boy who dances across the screen playing a pandeiro grew up to win a national pandeiro-playing contest and play his instrument around the world. Currently, Carlinhos Pandeiro de Ouro teaches in Los Angeles and at California Brazil Camp.