Francesco Rosi's (Salvatore Giuliano, Hands Over the City) 1984 big-screen adaptation of Bizet's famous opera Carmen is far from the only one of its ilk; you could even say that, along with Godard's Prénom: Carmen (1983) and Carlos Saura's flamenco version (also 1983), it was part of a contemporaneous wave. But it is quite unique among its immediate counterparts for being the most traditionally grand in scale and by far the most faithful to the original, which means it takes the risk of feeling too reverent, restrained, or "stagebound." But Rosi, one of the most talented of cinéastes, is more than equal to capturing the romantic, tragic spirit of the piece at the same time he makes that spirit manifest in thoroughly, gloriously cinematic terms.
You may or may not already be familiar with the story (which, as is common for opera, is strikingly simple, leaving plenty of room for musical/emotional expansions): Sometime in the 19th century, in the Andalusia region of Spain, a steadfast, upright military officer, Don José (opera legend Placido Domingo) is wooed by a local gypsy girl, a firebrand called Carmen (Julia Migenes), whose unfettered emotions and sexuality have landed her both in trouble with the law and in Don José's reluctant but irresistible erotic thoughts. Commissioned with the task of guarding the enticing Carmen after she has been arrested for attacking a romantic rival, Don José is easily persuaded to allow her to escape, giving up his honor (and his freedom--he is, in his turn, thrown in jail) to the blazing passion she has inspired in him.
When Don José is released and rejoins Carmen, she tempts him into going even lower and following along with her and a band of criminals she has taken up with, and he discovers that his sacrifices in the name of love may have been in vain. He and Carmen have a tempestuous, quarrelsome relationship, and her desire for a celebrity toreador, Escamillo (Ruggero Raimondi) is rapidly eclipsing any feelings she may have had for poor Don José. When Don José's piously devoted, good-girl betrothed, Micaela (Faith Isham) catches up with him, he is sufficiently put out with Carmen and Escamillo to go with her. But his cool, clear-headed devotion to Micaela cannot quell his red-hot jealousy over Carmen being with another man. Like the galloping, majestic bulls slain by Escamillo, Carmen's wild, intense, utterly free beauty is doomed to be vanquished by the constraints imposed by an obsessed, domineering man, who is in turn fated to kill the thing he loves.
With well-established operatic vocalists Domingo, Migenes, and Raimondi doing their own singing, and the film's score and various other vocal duties taken on with great finesse and heart by Chœurs de Radio France, the story is told almost exclusively through Bizet's exhilarating music (with Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy's original libretto, itself taken from an 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée, adapted for this rendition by Rosi and European film's most reliable screenwriting collaborator, Tonino Guerra (Red Desert, The Sacrifice), and in Rosi's hands, one could almost be convinced that Bizet had actually conceived his opera, with all its unforgettable melodic themes (even if you have never seen Carmen in any form, you have definitely heard some of this music at some point, somewhere), as a sort of screen musical. There is not a single awkward moment, and with Rosi's masterful, visually transfixing widescreen blocking and framing, everything flows very cinematically.
In fact, thanks to Rosi's sensuous eye, Pasqualino de Santis's (L'Argent, Lancelot of the Lake) incredible cinematography, and Enrico Job's (the Warhol/Morrissey Frankenstein and Dracula movies) production design and costumes, the film is nothing short of a decadent treat to look at. Rosi's decision to film on location in Andalusia, where the story is set, might seem unnecessary or even asinine (at least to those of us who were never all that impressed with, say, Werner Herzog's self-hyping shot-entirely-on-location gimmickry for Fitzcarraldo); after all, Carmen was created by a Frenchman, not an Andalusian, so there is none of that kind of authenticity to be had in the first place. And anyway, what is less in need of a "natural" or "authentic" backdrop than an opera (not a form known for its kitchen-sink realism) that has always worked very well against more or less artificial stage sets? But the real Andalusian locations are a fantastically astute call on Rosi's part, made less in aid of "authenticity" than to attain just the right tone and ambience. The heightened actions, the costumes and dancing, the expressive singing, the romance and tragedy, work so very well out of doors in this old, alluring landscape; everything just seems to glow under the Andalusian sun. Not even on the most meticulously constructed soundstage could Rosi and Co. have achieved what they have managed here: a perfect balance of naturalism and artifice rare not just for the cinema, but in any medium.
There is some uncertainty about Carmen's aspect ratio. The film was initially released in 70 mm versions (oh, if only...) at a 2.20:1 ratio, with 35 mm prints shown at 1.75:1. Some brief online research indicates that the most recent UK Blu-ray edition is at a 1.66:1 aspect ratio; this anamorphic version, prepared and released by Olive Films, is labeled 1.85:1. Since this is the first time this reviewer has seen the film, no in-depth comparison can be made; however, everything looked complete and appropriately framed, and with a restored 35 mm print used as the source for the transfer and the AVC/MPEG-4 Blu-ray encoding at 1080p, Carmen's gorgeous visuals are crisply, immaculately preserved, with the full power of all the brilliant color, light, contrasts, and shadow perfectly conveyed. The visual dimension of this disc seems, in the final analysis, more a cause for rejoicing than any aspect-ratio nitpicking.
Obviously, the sound is an even more important element than usual when it comes to a film like Carmen, and the sound quality on this disc is fantastic. An uncompressed PCM soundtrack (in French with English subtitles) is exactly the right choice for the film's sonic ambiance; one could not imagine better sound even from the best, most conscientious classical-label CD recording of the opera. All music and vocals are crystal clear, richly voluminous and layered, and perfectly balanced. Kudos are due to those responsible for preparing the disc's sound; they spared no trouble in bringing us the aural fineness necessary to get the most out of such a sound-centric experience.
Whether you're a demanding opera aficionado who expects nothing less than the finest, most sensitive treatment of music, libretto, and voice, even from a filmed opera, or a die-hard cinephile who demands "movie-ness" always, even from an opera film, Francesco Rosi's splendiferous cinematic rendition of Bizet's Carmen will ravish your eyes and ears. It stands easily with Rosi's better-known achievements, as well as with any great movie musical you might care to compare it to. It is actually surprising that a movie this good adapted from an opera this famous and well-liked has been stuck in the vaults for so long, but that error of omission has now been corrected. This wonderful accomplishment is finally available for us to get acquainted with, enjoy, and celebrate as it deserves. Highly Recommended.