It may be different, but the slow and dry U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha, based on Georges Bizet’s Carmen, sits awkwardly like a sponge cake in a cookie mould.
This adaptation of Georges Bizet’s 19th century opera Carmen sees a rather trying amalgam of modern arthouse flick and traditional opera. Without fine-tuning delicate turns in the plot and putting more focus on Bizet’s universal themes, British theater director turned filmmaker Mark Dornford-May’s first feature film U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha tries to marry South African shantytown culture with an opera so hugely popular, its potential celebration of multicultural artistry looks more like a spoof. That said, the film, which opened to internationally mixed reviews, did take home the prestigious Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival last year.
With members of South African ensemble lyric theatre Dimpho Di Kopane (DDK) and rookie actors making up its core cast, U-Carmen eKhayelitsha is set in one of South Africa’s largest townships, Khayelitsha, with Carmen (Pauline Malefane) as the hottest and most vivacious babe at the Gypsy Cigarette Factory, while Andile Tshoni plays Carmen’s forbidden love, Jongikhaya, a murderer turned police sergeant turned smuggler. The film then proceeds with the original opera’s plot, albeit lacking passion and chemistry between the two leads. Character development is also minimal, and the viewer has to (unfortunately) fall back on either previously staged versions or other film adaptations to fill in the gaps in the plot.
But there are a few bright sparks in the film. The start sizzles with anticipation as audiences are confronted with a fast-forwarded, pull-back shot of the alleyways and passages of slums, a la Fernando Meirelles’s Oscar nominated City of God. The setting puts firmly in place the boisterous activity and communal gatherings that are so true about South Africa, and highlights the warmth and close-knittedness of the community in spite of the poverty they face.
Bizet’s music is translated and sung in Xhosa, a daunting challenge that the members of theater company DDK accepted and executed with skill. Some commendable renditions include the soulful take on “Love is a Rebellious Bird” and “The Sistrums’ Bars Tinkled,” accompanied by surprisingly graceful dance sequences.
Fans of arthouse flicks might find U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha refreshing, but for the rest of us, this is a rather long-winded and slow film that tested our patience with its slack narrative. You have been cautioned.