Directed by: Mark Dornford-May
Written by: Mark Donford-May, Andiswa Kedama & Pauline Malefane
Original Libretto by: Ludovic Halévy & Henri Meilhac
Music by: Georges Bizet!
When musicals work, on stage or screen, it’s usually only when foregrounded against stylized, artificial backdrops. A musical shouldn't lead you to think that it's set in the real world because in real life people don’t spontaneously burst into song—at least not with full orchestral accompaniment. U-Carmen subverts this practiced standard by staging the classic opera in the actual streets of South Africa, but the film still triumphantly succeeds in virtue of the fact that the shanty township looks like a fantasy-world, as far removed as it is from my everyday experience. Lamentably, perhaps, modern-day Africans are as exotic to today's average American as gypsies must’ve been to Georges Bizet over a century ago.
The location shooting is at first disorienting, and it takes a reel or two to become accustomed to the dizzying handheld cameras and the outrageous juxtaposition of the theatrical with the authentic. But the technique is soon bewitching and exhilarating as Dornford-May imbues the proceedings with a boisterous joie de vivre, thanks in large part to interspersing indigenous music into Bizet’s score and retaining the diegetic sound during the musical numbers. (For example, during the famous, incomparable Habanera, we hear the other cigarette girls as they cheer Carmen on with hoots and hollers, creating the impression that the singing is live and not lip-synched.) The exotica of both styles of music surprisingly complement one another exceptionally; setting the opera in a Khayelitsha ghetto serves, on the one-hand, as a telling contrast between Africa and the West, but because it works so well U-Carmen ultimately proves our musical traditions share, at the very least, a common essence.
When not toe-tappingly life affirming, the film brings to the screen the tragic opera's devastating despair, of a rarefied degree seldom felt on the stage; Dornford-May has the privilege of the close-up, as well as a complex performance from Pauline Malefane in the title role that oscillates between bitchy manipulation and heartbreaking tenderness. Dornford-May & Co. accomplish something truly remarkable—they transform Carmen, the famous antiheroine, into an achingly admirable and sympathetic character. When she surrenders her life in a courageous celebration of freedom, it is poignant and touching, rather than a cheerable act of vengeance.
U-Carmen takes its liberties with the repertorial opera in terms of the story and chronology, as well as by truncating the score; but, though the flashbacked backstories involving Jongi (Don Jose) are a bit unnecessary, the film—like any good translation—is merely changing the words, so to speak (and literally, as it translates the libretto into Xhosa, with all its unusual pops and clicks), while preserving the spirit of the source text. Even a masterpiece like Carmen, the crown jewel of Western culture, can benefit from a fresh and smart reinterpretation. U-Carmen is a radical cinematic and musical experiment, and a breathtaking success.