U-CARMEN EKHAYELITSHA directed by Mark Dornford-May, with Pauline Malefane, Andries Mbali and Andile Tshoni. A Mongrel Media release. 126 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (July 28). For venues and times, see Movies, page 107. Rating: NNNN
Radical reworkings of the opera Carmen aren't new. In Prénom Carmen, Godard reimagined Bizet's ball-busting heroine as a gun-toting terrorist. Choreographer Matthew Bourne retooled the work, set it in a garage and gave it the cheeky title The Car Man.
But neither is as bold as U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, Mark Dornford-May's version of the opera set in contemporary South Africa.
I saw Dornford-May and Dimpho Di Kopane's live staging of the opera during 2003's World Stage Festival. Pauline Malefane was magnetic in the title role, and the experience of seeing this 19th-century French opera brought to raucous life in Xhosa no less, complete with clicks was exciting but incongruous. This isn't Spain, so why is there bullfighting?
In the film, Dornford-May has dispensed with the bullfighting, save for a clever nod or two. The township setting of Khayelitsha offers up enough richness with its crowded shacks, dusty roads and shady poolhalls.
What's impressive is how much Dornford-May has kept from Bizet's original yet also made his own.
Carmen (Pauline Malefane again, regal and confident) is, as she is in the opera, a cigarette-factory worker, but here she seduces the Bible-thumping cop Jongikhaya (Andile Tshoni). The opera's Escamillo figure has been turned into a local kid made good. His parents were killed during apartheid, he was raised and educated in the U.S. and he has now returned for a triumphal concert.
The only narrative thread that doesn't quite work (it's a drag in the opera, too) is the relationship between Jongikhaya and his girlfriend, here the widow of his brother and a figure representing South Africa's scarred past.
The shadow of apartheid hangs over the film, which is fitting. Carmen is all about freedom. The title character lives life and beds men on her own terms, and is even prepared to die for her liberty.
Surprisingly, except for a few cuts and clever repositionings, Dornford-May hasn't toyed with the score or orchestrations. Charles Hazlewood's indigenous rhythms and melodies add texture to the piece. Rhythm is used effectively; percussion can come from everywhere, including in one remarkable scene a car windshield.
The director has filmed the opera's famous arias in unusual places and wrapped them in the libretto's earthy, lusty language. After Carmen croons a seductive song, a jealous woman tosses a condom to the man who's just heard it, saying, "You'll need this!"
You won't see that on PBS.