U-CARMEN (Mark Donford-May, 2005)

The following is one of the entries from my list of the 100 greatest films (through 2006) from Africa, Latin America & the Caribbean, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis

Winner of the top prize at Berlin, U-Carmen eKhayelitsha transposes from Seville to Cape Town today Georges Bizet’s nineteenth-century opera Carmen. The violent romantic triangle remains intact, with South African history and male gender bias helping to define Carmen’s association with freedom, independence, self-determination.
     The film opens on Carmen’s face as a lover’s voiceover compares her female beauty to the Spanish ideal. Thus Carmen and lover are both inside and outside the film, fictional characters and the actors who are playing them. The film’s thematic coordinates partly lie outside the opera. The film considers the cultural collision between the Third World and the Europe that once colonized it. This movie’s Carmen is both a vibrant South African woman and someone who is selfconsciously Carmen (hence, her most un-South African name) as a result of an intrusive Europe and its imposition of European culture. Hers is a compounded example, then, of modern alienation, of watching oneself being oneself. (Recall: Picasso credited African masks for elements of his cubism.) The voiceover describes Carmen’s “expression [as] at once alluring and fierce” as her face, in closeup, mesmerizes us as a kind of mask. As the camera withdraws we see that Carmen is sitting in a tent being photographed. The camera’s long retreat, inspired by the final shot in Max Ophüls’s Lola Montès (1955), reveals the shantytown where Carmen lives, that is to say, the poverty that is the legacy of colonization, Apartheid and, now, globalization. The camera’s quick reverse movement “loses” Carmen almost immediately to suggest the larger social tragedy she is a part of.
     The musical, punctuating the Bizet with indigenous folk tunes, is sung entirely in Xhosa. With great verve, it spills over mundane settings—village, factory, school. Directed by Britain’s Mark Donford-May, Pauline Malefane makes a stunning Carmen.

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