Saturday, August 18, 2007

43. South African filmmaker Mark Dornford-May's "U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha" (2005): Different strokes of Bizet's opera 'Carmen,' and the best is....


There are examples of cinema when music can provide fodder for thought. Great directors have always chosen music to communicate viewpoints, not merely to soothe our aural cravings. Bizet's Carmen can be appreciated as a musical work without much thought. It can also be appreciated in the context in which the musical work is used on celluloid.

I had seen two of the most fascinating film versions of Carmen in the mid-Eighties: (a) Francesco Rosi's Italian version that won a Golden Globe and a BAFTA award with two of the most accomplished tenors (Placido Domingo and Ruggero Raimondi) playing leads roles that had spoken dialogs to punctuate the singing, and (b) Carlos Suara's Spanish version with flamingo dancers that won a Prize at Montreal film festival and a Bodil award for the Best European film. It was difficult to conceive that another production could be made to outshine either of these. Yet here was a South African director making a version of Carmen (his debut at that) in South Africa's tongue clicking Xhosa language capturing all the elements of accomplished filmmakers Rosi and Suara with a felicity of a veteran filmmaker to walk way with a Golden Bear at the Berlin Festival in 2005.

A bullfight in Cape Town shantytown suburbs? Director Mark Dornford-May suggests the bullfight with a single shot of a bull in a paddock, an actor holding a dagger, and the sound of an animal in pain—nothing else. Sex is suggested off-screen, never shown. The story and music of the opera Carmen is retained religiously with local color thrown in: a Bible-reading police sergeant who had earlier killed his own brother and glibly lied to his own mother and police about the incident, women who taunt men in almost equal terms, and the singing talent of black South Africans.

There are two ways to enjoy the film: (a) Imbibe the variation of presenting the famous musical work in an unusual setting and (b) savor the film as a documentary of modern-day urban South Africa without the music/operatic songs. Either way you will have a treat. I have been to South Africa and what is shown is very close to reality.

The film belongs to the lead actress Pauline Melafane who exudes sensuality, without having to take off her clothes and is the epitome of the opening line: " ..for every fault she had a quality that came out from the contrast…" Her screen presence is incredible and outshines all Carmens on screen to date that I have seen. She is able to blend tragedy and cocky image of a college going student (forget that she is playing an illiterate shantytown dweller!).

Director Dornford-May achieves two objectives with this work: he proves Bizet's Carmen is universal not a mere European work and that the opera can be well produced in obscure languages, if there was a will and talent. Bizet would have been proud of this film. The red (the primal color of bullfights) color comes to the fore only in the finale as the color worn by the women and the sheet covering the dead. To win a Golden Bear for a debut film is no mean achievement—more so when the experiment has been attempted by others in the past. The director injected realism in this film, not being limited to mere romance and gallantry—in fact Carmen's lover in this film is an anti-hero, a liar, and a modern-day Cain seeking forgiveness. Rosi and Suara need to take a back seat!

P.S. This powerful film overshadowed Fateless, the remarkable Hungarian film discussed earlier in this blog, at the same edition of the Berlin Film Festival. It shared honors with another remarkable film, the Chinese Kong que, also reviewed earlier.

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