Directed by Valerie Buhagiar
Starring Natascha McElhone, Michela Farrugia, Steven Love
Though not an adaptation of the opera/novella of the same name this particular Carmen shares a few of the attributes of that much reinvented work along with one or two familiar operatic plot devices. Mistaken identity leads to misunderstanding and comedy. Authority figures are slovenly and lazy, or completely out of touch. A liberated woman is a revelation and a danger. And then add in a magic realist pigeon.
Set in Malta in the 1980s, Carmen tells the story (based on the director’s own experiences) of the tradition of a priest’s younger sister having to devote her life as a servant to the church, though in literal terms as a servant/handmaiden to her brother. Carmen has spent 30 years as housekeeper forgoing any relationships or any freedom at all outside of her duties to keep the small village church in order. When the priest dies suddenly she is cast aside. Her place due to be taken by the sister of the incoming priest.
Without any family to call on Carmen visits the Monsignor to ask what she should do. He tells her she is to live “eternally in bliss”. Without a home or any income Carmen is perplexed. How will this happen? When? “When you die, of course”, says the oily Monsignor as he idly rolls a cigarette between his fingers. With nowhere to go Carmen lets herself back into the church and camps out in the belfry eventually being mistaken for the new priest just at the moment she has hidden herself in the confessional booth. Soon she is passing out penance and advice under false pretences to all the women of the village who flock to confession to hear the wisdom of the new “priest.” To get by Carmen borrows from the offertory box and hocks a few candlesticks at an antique shop on the other side of the island.
Gradually Carmen’s new freedom allows her to emerge from the shadows. She gets her hair done. Metamorphosis. A bright red dress the metaphorical butterfly’s wings. People, men especially, begin to notice her. People, women especially, begin to listen to her. A transformation is taking place. And not just in an individual but in all of the others that she comes into contact with.
McElhone is great in this. There’s an incredible physicality to her performance in the way she changes how her character moves, the expressiveness of her face, the intonation of her voice. Incrementally, subtly. And Malta looks beautiful throughout. It’s a strange little jewel of a film. Somehow slight and easily overlooked but held up close it really sparkles.
Main image from Carmen, Steven Love and Natascha McElhone
Carmen is released in the USA in cinemas and digitally on September 23. European release later in the year.