U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (2005)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5

, 2005. . Screenplay by Mark Dornford-May, , , based on the opera by and . Cinematography by . Produced by Mark Dornford-May, . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by

Bizet’s classic opera is once again transported to another place and time in this adaptation performed by members of the South African Theatre Company, with the libretto translated into Xhosa by two of the film’s lead actresses. The tragic male hero is named Jongikhaya in this version, a police officer in a South African township who joins his fellow officers ogling the pretty girls who work in a local cigarette factory. The most dangerous and exciting factory worker of them all, Carmen, sings to them of her dangerous nature and Jongi is entranced, ignoring his late brother’s widow who has come from the village to suggest he return with home and instead following Carmen to his own doom. After she is arrested for a violent fight with another woman, Jongi lets Carmen escape while en route to prison and ends up losing his job and becoming a drug trafficker.

He has fully fallen in love but she can’t be tied down, and despite her troubles with the law, Carmen continues to live her life with a disregard for rules and commitments. The factory workers also spend their free time performing in a choir that is set to headline a concert at the film’s climax, and Jongi follows the group there to confront Carmen about his feelings for her.

Unlike the 1954 Otto Preminger film Carmen Jones, which chopped the opera up into Broadway-style musical numbers and overdid its colloquialization of Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac’s poetic lyrics, Pauline Malefane and Andiswa Kedama‘s translation feels intact and reverent, effortless in placing this classic work associated with the high concept art of opera in a setting more commonly associated with conflict and tragedy.

Malefane, who is marred to director Mark Dornford-May, is superb in the lead role, mysterious and enigmatic as a woman who understandably has this hold on the men she meets, possessing an equally enchanting voice that is a pleasure to listen to throughout the film. The entire cast reportedly sang their parts live on the set and there’s a powerful spontaneity to the delivery of the drama because of this.

Berlin Film Festival Award: Golden Bear

Toronto International Film Festival: 2005

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