U-CARMEN takes Bizet’s opera set in Seville a hundred and thirty years ago and transposes it to a modern-day South African township. The movie is directed by Mark Dornford-May, who apparently has a long history in British theatre and opera. Some time ago he moved to South Africa and set up a lyric theatre/opera company populated largely by people who had never set foot inside a theatre, let alone been on stage. Dornford-May directed a production of Carmen, featuring Pauline Malefane, one of the few members of the troupe who did have a professional training in opera. That production, sung in French, became successful both in South Africa and on tour, and forms the basis of this film.
Dornford-May was anxious to set the movie firmly in contemporary South Africa and so Pauline Malefane (Carmen) translated the French libretto into Xhosa, complete with clicks. Carmen still works in a cigarette factory, and there is still a local barracks, albeit populated by policeman rather than army officers. Admittedly, the dashing toreador Escamillo is now a famous opera singer, but we still get a the goring of a bull in a traditional sacrifice of thanks for his home-coming.
Musically, the movie stays faithful to Bizet – why would you mess with genius after all? I am sure the film-makers made many cuts to get it all down to two hours but the only absences I noted were the children’s chorus greeting the changing of the guard and the sextet. The orchestra and singers all do a great job and after a while I even stopped noticing the change of language. Clearly this is not a star-studded company, but I have seen far worse sung on London stages over the years. In terms of acting, comparisons are hard to make as usually you are never close enough in the opera house to see much of the facial expressions. Here, by contrast, the film-makers shoot the movie as if on stage with the actors, with extensive use of close-ups. To my mind, Pauline Malefane handles herself well in front of the camera, conveying the strength, sensuality and vulnerability of Carmen. However, the Jose and Escamillo characters are rather wooden.
It is also worth pointing out that while this is a dramatically ambitious movie, it is not cinematically ambitious. For the most part, the film is shot in a straightforward manner and sometimes looks a little amatuerish. In a key scene between Jose/Jungi and his sister-in-law, the characters are shot with the bright mid-day sun behind them and we cannot see their faces. The only time we see anything approaching a “cinematic” moment is one of the opening scenes. The camera rolls back at high speed through the township as the sound mix combines an orchestra warming up with the traffic noise of a busy highway.
Having said all this, Carmen is still a great movie for opera-lovers. As stretched as the transposition might sound, the move from Seville to the town-ship works rather well. I think this is because Carmen, as opposed to say, Rigoletto, deals in themes that are still relevant to contemporary society, especially one characterised by deep economic and social inequality. Carmen is a fascinating character, to me at least. Here we have a woman who has a strong sense of her own sexual identity and tries to gain social and economic freedom by using it. Picked up by the police, she seduces Jose/Jungi into letting her escape, and then promises Zuniga/Gaetano that she will sleep with him if he drops the charges. Finally, she and the other girls allow the smugglers to pimp them out to the customs guards in order to smooth the passage of the contraband. So here is a woman who, given her lack of economic opportunities in a partriarchal society, is forced into using her sexuality as a weapon. The fact that she does so with such gusto does not offset her vulnerability to violence at the hands of the men she “plays” with. One of the great things about this film is that it brings to the surface all the violence that exists in the text. I must confess to the fact that, despite having seen and heard Carmen many times, I had never picked up on the throw-away line that Jose/Jungi joined the army because he had murdered a man. While most conventional productions despict Jose as a soft-hearted dope brought to a tragic end by a coquette, in this production, Jose is always a violent man, and Carmen merely unlocks his repressed anger. So, while Carmen is in control of her own sexuality, she suffers at the hands of man repeatedly, and is, in the final analysis, undone by it. Her search for freedom is in vain.
To sum up, I feel that U-CARMEN is a movie for people who love opera. It may lack cinematic ambition, but it more than makes up for this by delivering real insight into an almost too-familiar text. However, I would hesistate in recommending this film to people who really just do not like opera. While the movie does raise interesting questions about how society treats strong women, if you don’t like this style of music, I imagine it would be very difficult to get into.
U-CARMEN was shown at Berlin 2005 where it won the Golden Bear. It went on release in Germany in December 2005 and in France in February 2006. It went on release in the UK on Friday. It has not yet been sold into the US.