Film-Forward Review: [U-CARMEN]

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Pauline Malefane as Carmen
Photo: Koch Lorber Films

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U-CARMEN
Directed by: Mark Dornford-May.
Written by: Dornford-May, Andiswa Kedama & Pauline Malefane, adapted from libretto by Henri Meilhac & Ludovic Halťvy.
Produced by: Mark Dornford-May, Ross Garland & Camilla Driver.
Director of Photography: Giullio Biccari.
Edited by: Ronelle Loots.
Music by: Georges Bizet.
Language: Xhosa with English subtitles.
Country of Origin: South Africa. 120 Minutes. Not Rated.
Released by: Koch Lorber Films.
With: Pauline Malefane, Andile Tshoni, Lungelwa Blou & Zweilungile Sidloyi.
DVD Features: Making-of featurette. Interviews with Mark Dornford-May, Pauline Malefane & Andiswa Kedawa. Trailer.

U-Carmen is a wonderful movie musical. It uses most of the lovely melodies of Georges Bizetís opera, but sung full throttle in colloquial Xhosa with its distinctive clicking sounds by the Capetown lyric theater company Dimpho Di Kopane. Visually naturalistic, it has much in common with the updated La Boheme, Rent, effectively making the case that opera can again have the populist appeal as in Bizetís day.

Transplanted to a post-apartheid South African shanty township, the original storyline is closely, and easily, followed in spoken dialog and recitative, with contemporary and traditional African resonances, including an opening paean to full-bodied, dark-skinned women. Flirtatious Carmen (the formidable Pauline Malefane) still works in a cigarette factory (brand name, Gypsy), brags about her freedom to love (reinforced by a beaded necklace in African liberation colors), and entrances all the clamoring men in Seville, as a neighborhood in Khayelitsha township is called here. While almost continuously singing those famously hummable tunes, Carmen has the same rebellious troubles with the police and criminals as in the opera. The fortune teller here, however, is a sangoma, a healer, who predicts Carmenís doom by throwing the bones.

The smitten soldier Don Josť becomes the Bible-reading police sergeant Jongi (powerfully sung by the stoic Andile Tshoni), in the same doomed trajectory of obsessive love. His and Carmenís passionate cross-purpose duets are beautiful. In flashbacks, we see more of his violent past than usual, filling out his longing for his mother and rural home and church, putting in more context the sentimentally sung pleas by his village betrothed, Nomakhaya (Lungelwa Blou), to return.

The familiar melodies of the toreador are secondary, sung now by an expatriate son of an anti-apartheid activist returning to the old neighborhood as an opera star. The whole community gathers for his climactic appearance at the town hall. Instead of a bull fight, his homecoming is highlighted by the ritual slaughtering of a bull, as the women celebrate with ululations, the men with drums, and the soundtrack booms with the full orchestration of Bizetís stirring music under the direction of Charles Hazlewood.

Joel Mthethwaís exuberantly informal choreography looks like spontaneous outpourings among the sensually zaftig cigarette factory worker-chorus surrounding Carmen at work, at a tavern (with Carmen belting out her aria on top of a pool table), and by the beach, with little need of the suspension of reality required for most movie musicals. The pacing loses a bit in the non-musical scenes, but gains in verisimilitude by showing more of the charactersí environments, filmed in the teeming township frequently with a hand-held camera. Unlike Baz Luhrmann, theater director Mark Dornford-May vividly demonstrates that excess isnít necessary to imaginatively reinvent a classic and make it vibrant. Nora Lee Mandel
March 23, 2007

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