U-carmen

  • 2007
  • 2 HR 06 MIN
  • NR

Mark Dornford-May's contemporary reimagining of the 1875 opera Carmen is set in Khayelitsha, one of South Africa's largest townships, and cast with singers and actors recruited by the local theater group Dimpho Di Kopane, most of whom had never appeared on film before. Sung entirely in Xhosa (complete with its distinctive glottal clicks), it intertwines...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Mark Dornford-May's contemporary reimagining of the 1875 opera Carmen is set in Khayelitsha, one of South Africa's largest townships, and cast with singers and actors recruited by the local theater group Dimpho Di Kopane, most of whom had never appeared on film before. Sung entirely in Xhosa (complete with its distinctive glottal clicks), it intertwines Georges Bizet's famous score with traditional South African melodies, and the result is simultaneously faithful to the original and specific to its African location.

Carmen (Pauline Malefane) works in a cigarette factory, where her regal bearing, fiery temperament and feminine wiles arouse jealousy among the other women. She sets her sights on pious Sergeant Jongikhaya (Andile Tshoni) — Jongi for short — at the same time that he's summoned home by Nomakhaya (Lungelwa Blou), a hometown neighbor acting on behalf of Jongi's estranged mother. Now mortally ill, Jongi's mother wants to reconcile with the son she repudiated years earlier. But Jongi is besotted with Carmen and helps her escape after she's arrested for stabbing a coworker; he winds up confined to barracks for his indiscretion. Jongi's superior, Captain Gantana (Zamile Christopher Gantana), also has his eye on the bold, sullen seductress. Though Carmen should be keeping a low profile, she lends a hand to some local smugglers and also recklessly joins her friends dancing at the local bar owned by Bra Nkomo (Andries Mbali). Bra's cousin, Lulamile (Zweilungile "Zorro" Sidloyi), is a famous singer who's on his way back to Khayelitsha to placate the spirit of his father, who's been appearing to him in dreams. Lulamile will then give a Freedom Day concert in nearby Cape Town, backed by the Gypsy Cigarette Girls' Chorus, of which Carmen is a member. The sordid tangle comes to a head at the concert hall.

Dornford-May's straightforward filmmaking neither glamorizes Khayelitsha and its residents nor plays up the contrast between the silky score and their hardscrabble lives. His strategy works brilliantly: The stylized world of European opera and the dusty township streets seem made for each other, and the cast — notably Malefane and Tshoni — wrap their voices around the score with breathtaking grace and power. Like the Senegalese KARMEN GEI (2002), it's vivid evidence that great music and stories transcend time and place.

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