I'm not a purist when it comes to taking operas or classical stage works, and updating them or transporting them to different locales or periods in history. Bizet's Carmen, one of my favorite operas, has been adapted numerous times for the cinema, most notably by Francesco Rosi, starring Placido Domingo and Julia Migenes in 1984, and by Otto Preminger in the brilliant update from 1954, starring the stunning team of Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Balefonte. Director Mark Donford-May's 2005 update of Bizet's masterpiece, U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and quite a lot of attention from critics all over the world. I was less than impressed. Just because a film wins an award doesn't mean it's automatically good, or important, or even worthwhile (in fact, there are a couple of famous film festivals where, if a film wins there, you can almost bet that the movie stinks). While I enjoyed the atmosphere of a South African shanty town captured by the director, as a musical, the film doesn't work.
The opera's original story is kept relatively intact. Carmen (Pauline Malefane), a worker in a cigarette "factory" (women sitting at a table, rolling smokes), taunts and teases the men of Khayelitsha, the shanty village outside of Cape Town, South Africa. Simultaneously attracted and distrustful of Jongi (Andile Tshoni), a police officer, Carmen dares him to love her, to desire her. Jongi, who has killed his brother, tries to resist her charms, but eventually cannot. His obsession with her starts to overwhelm his good judgement, forcing him to take up with smugglers to impress Carmen. Carmen also has eyes for the famous singer Nkomo (Zweilungile 'Zorro' Sidloyi), who originally came from Khayelitsha. Of course, as with any opera, this love triangle must end in death and tragedy.
For Carmen to work in any context, the central actress playing Carmen must be believably desirable; she must inspire in the audience the belief that men indeed would kill for her approval. Many of the reviews that came out for U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha struck a defensive tone in trying to defend the casting of Malefane as Carmen, who doesn't immediately strike one as erotic enough to pull off the role. I'm not willing to do that. Dandridge and Rosi were successful in their roles because men and women all over the world could see with their own eyes that these women were sensual, beautiful, desirable women; the heat they gave off was palpable (a neat trick when watching a two-dimensional film). With all apologies to Malefane, she's unable to pull off the same feat. It's not just the fact that she doesn't fit a standard image of female beauty (Simone Signoret didn't either, and she was sexy as hell in Room at the Top and Ship of Fools). No, eroticism is as much mental as physical (if not more), and Malefane gives off almost no chemistry in the film, no indication of the mental seduction so crucial to winning over film audiences. Her eyes are flat and unexpressive, and her acting is stilted and awkward. If I don't believe that Carmen can turn a good man bad, then the film is a failure - from minute one.
The supporting players are equally amateurish, which is too bad, because the director does have an eye for locale and a feel for creating atmosphere. The cinematography is razor-sharp, and captures the heat and squalor of the shanty town. Unfortunately, this ultra-realism, often accentuated with hand-held camerawork, clashes absurdly when a full orchestra wells up with the incongruous music of Bizet. When the girls from the factory walk down the South African streets, with the sprightly music of Bizet booming on the soundtrack, it's a collision of image and music, with both losing out. Frankly, it's laughable to see the actors break out into arias, under full orchestral accompaniment, while the camera records the events in the manner of a wedding video. After about ten minutes of U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha, I started to wish that director Dornford-May had just made a straight drama out of the opera, and left the music out altogether.
The non-anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) video image for U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha is crystal clear, with vibrant, deep colors.
There are two optional soundtracks for U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha: a 5.1 and a 2.0 stereo track. There's quite a bit of separation during the musical numbers in the 5.1. English and French subtitles are also available.
Aside from some trailers, there are no extras on U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha
U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha is an unsuccessful attempt to bring Bizet's Carmen to the slums of Cape Town, South Africa. The miscasting of the central role, along with a fundamental incongruity between the method of filming and the source material, sinks U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha from the get-go. Skip it.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.