Comedy dramas are so common that audiences rarely perceive them as contradictory. Valerie Buhagiar’s Carmen, however, is unusually conflicted about her style commitments. The comic elements are broad and humorous, steeped in small-town cuteness. The grim story, in contrast, exposes the disturbingly brutal tension of small-town violence and brutality.
Buhagiar never resolves this tension and doesn’t even know it exists. But the film still manages to be effective, thanks to breathtaking cinematography and an amazing performance by Natasha McElhone in the title role.
Job story, but with a smile
Carmen, a meek woman in her late 40s, serves as a maid and housekeeper for her brother, who works as a priest in Malta in the 1980s. Sister’s life is dry and largely joyless. But it gets even worse when her brother dies suddenly, and she is out of the rectory. The scene in which she tries to convince a church official that she really has nowhere to go and that she has no one to look after, only to be met by sullen, dreary indifference, is a silent nightmare. Buhagiar frames Carmen as weeping against the interior architecture that rises around her, leaving a soul in a stark and unheard-of stone hell.
But the spiritual dryness of the opening is early, and even glaring, abandoned. God shows that he cares for Carmen by sending a dove as a guide. The bird takes her from the street where she is sleeping back to the church, where she hides in confession. The new priest did not appear. The parishioners think that Carmen is the one when she goes into hiding and begins giving what is decidedly heretical advice, much of which involves telling women to follow their dreams, even if it means disobeying their husbands. Or run away from their families.
The transition from abject despair to emotional empowerment is served with a big helping of off-putting corn. Frank Capra and Steven Spielberg cruise around the streets of Malta, pouring Hollywood syrup on a tale of spiritual despair. It’s like watching the parable of Job told by Walt Disney.
Still, McElhone goes a long way toward selling it. The gray-haired, fearful woman we see in the opening scenes blossoms, as the cinematography pulls back to show the beauty of Malta’s landscape and coast. McElhone’s whole face changes when she smiles, and her happiness is shot down with a mischievous blasphemy that is totally winning. It’s easy to see why the much younger Paulo (Steven Love) immediately falls for her. And it’s equally easy to understand why Carmen’s successor Rita (Michaelia Farrugia) more than half thinks her predecessor is a witch, coming to woo her down the path of piety.
everything is forgiven, sort
Carmen’s skepticism and unexpected rebellion initially seems to have come out of nowhere. But over the course of the film, as you learn about her past, you understand that she has every reason to distrust and resent the people of Malta, and for that matter, God. They have great personal reasons to identify with women trampled on by tradition and patriarchy. Her own bravery and adventure have not been discovered in romance. They are part of a self that was forced to leave and is picking up again.
Revelations about Carmen’s history add nuance to McElhorn’s performance. Buhagiar and his leadership are telling you who Carmen is with that smile, with the clothes she buys, with every choice she makes, and with astonishing revulsion, before the narrative fills you up. Many movies use tragic backstories to give depth to the characters. But here history only explains the layers that you have already seen. It’s clever and compelling filmmaking.
Which makes it all the more disappointing when the ending is back on the Hollywood stick. Carmen’s anger and pain are portrayed forcefully and convincingly; They are wounding through him every moment on the screen. But as we approach the final quarter of the film, that dove starts flying about the stunning Malta coast, bound to reconcile everywhere. The final scenes eschew any pretense of realism, narrative or sentimentalism in the interest of a weeping cheerleader.
It’s disappointing to see a potentially great movie so firmly and without regret turning to mediocrity. But it happens. The business ideas are what they are, and it doesn’t seem like Buhagiar really has the heart to pursue the bleak implications of his narrative in any case.
Carmen is a disappointing and flawed film, which in many respects betrays its own best self. But a lot of movies don’t have the best self to betray. Ultimately, it seems that Buhagiar loves his main character too much to fully explore the barren landscape of his pain. This is regrettable. But Carmen, sitting at the confession, listening intently with that wonderful smile, would undoubtedly say that this is a forgivable sin.
Rating: 7/10 Specification
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Noah Burlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Her book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks Adam West’s Batman is the best Batman, darn.