Carmen

by George Wolf

Before the end of the year, there are two Carmen films being released. This is the other one.

Writer/director Valerie Buhagiar isn’t interested in updating that classic opera. But she is interested in what happens when one repressed woman begins to indulge an impetuous nature that would make the legendary operatic gypsy proud.

It is the 1980s on the Maltese Islands, the middle-aged Carmen (Natascha McElhone – outstanding) has been serving as housekeeper for her brother the priest (Henry Zammit Cordina) since she was 16 years old.

The Monsignor (Paul Portelli) promises Carmen that she will indeed be rewarded for her years of service to the Church – when she dies. In this life, though, there is little joy until fate intervenes.

Carmen’s brother suddenly drops dead, and when a replacement is slow to arrive, Carmen herself is mistaken for the new priest. Slipping into the anonymity of the confessional booth, she dispatches advice that actually improves the lives of the locals (especially the women). Contented townsfolk mean an overflowing collection box, which Carmen dips into with a heavenly vow to repay.

She gets a new look, indulges herself, and soon catches the eye of men about town, including the younger Paulo (Steven Love), and the older Tom (Richard Clarkin).

It’s a wonderful lead role for the veteran McElhone, and she makes the most of it. Even early on, we get the sense that there is still a passionate spirit alive in Carmen, just one that’s been buried by years of serving both a country and a religion with little interest in a woman’s fulfillment.

McElhone reveals Carmen’s journey of self with a mischievous indulgence that feels both genuine and joyous, even if the opening “mistaken identity” setup lands as a tad contrived.

The character arc also seems personal to Buhagiar. A Malta native, she deftly uses Carmen’s backstory and her lifetime of longing to comment on the xenophobia she’s seen in her homeland, and the oppression she’s felt from her Church.

The film’s sense of awakening and romance is propelled by gorgeous photography (hat tip to cinematographer Diego Guijarro) and sly use of visual imagery.

Sure, that dove that’s following Carmen around can easily be seen as a religious symbol. But it’s also a reminder from Buhagiar that Carmen’s famous name is no accident. Much like the titular opera’s description of love, this Carmen’s heart is still “a rebellious bird that none can tame.”

And it sure is fun watching her follow it.

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