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Olive films has snagged a really good title this time out: director Francesco Rosi's colorful epic Carmen (1984), a full-bore film adaptation of the opera by Georges Bizet. Until something better comes along this lusty and thrilling musical version remains the one to see. It has great music & singing, impressive settings and attractive stars -- including the household name and major draw Plácido Domingo. Rosi is one of the most respected Italian directors of his generation. His involvement makes this a more substantive and intelligent production than we commonly expect with modern film musicals. 1
Mérimée's famed opera debuted in Paris in 1875, but as will happen with great masterpieces, didn't become popular until the composer died. Sung in French, the earthy, uncomplicated and universally identifiable story takes place among the poor gypsies of Seville. An army barracks lies opposite a cigarette factory (tabacalera) where hundreds of women work; the soldiers dream about them. Micaëla (Faith Esham) arrives from the country to ask Don Jose (Plácido Domingo) to return home to be with his sickly mother, who wants him to marry. But Don Jose doesn't count on meeting Carmen (Julia Migenes-Johnson), a fiery local girl desired by all. Fiercely independent, Carmen lives in the moment and laughs at those who would restrict her behavior. When Carmen admits to slashing another woman's face in a fight, Don Jose is given the job of keeping her under arrest. He instead falls under Carmen's spell and helps her escape. A month later, Carmen interrupts her flirtation with the toreador Escamillo (Ruggero Raimondi), as she's just heard that Don Jose has been released from the guardhouse. She takes him to her rooms to make love, and to convince him to join a gypsy friend's group of smugglers. Don Jose declares himself but proposes a conventional romance, and Carmen is infuriated when he prepares to return to the barracks. On the way out he runs into his own superior Zuniga (Jean-Paul Bogart) coming in. A fight breaks out. Don Jose now has little choice but to desert and join Carmen's bandits.
Carmen is an immensely popular opera with a strong story that connects with modern audiences much more easily than Wagnerian-style entertainments: the character of the forceful and sexually demanding Carmen has always been fascinating. The earthy story of vulgar life among the poor of Spain initially attracted censure in Europe but also began a fashion for all things Spanish, even though the lyrics are in French; Carmen's part is difficult to sing, a real showcase for talent. Most of the music isn't authentically Spanish in flavor and the orchestrations sound more like La Marseillaise than anything Iberian. Only after the completion of the opera did composer Bizet realize that his Habanera, Carmen's initial theme, was not original but written years before by Basque composer Sebastián Iradier.
Mezzo-soprano Julia Migenes-Johnson is a formidable Carmen, with a beautiful voice and a sultry disposition; she fully fleshes out the role. Carmen is bold, proud and open to life, but also willful, capricious and capable of great cruelty. In a world where men are the presumed masters, she uses her sex to dominate men, taking and casting off lovers as she feels fit. It's a woman's play. Plácido Domingo's Don Jose isn't an entirely passive character, but the storyline sees him repeatedly folding under Carmen's influence. His flaw is a belief that he will be the man who can reform her. Of course, Carmen's reckless defiance of the social rules is exactly what makes her irresistible. The key image of Carmen is not a señorita posing in an ornate dress, but an unrepentant woman sitting or lying back on her bed, her legs spread wide, smiling in the knowledge of her power. Carmen knows full well that her 'power' won't last forever, and has no plans for a long life.
Director Rosi opens up the opera with beautiful Spanish locations but retains the play's basic theatrical blocking. Rather than try to make everything seem naturalistic, he accepts the exotic locations as they are. The town square, with the soldiers dreaming about the attractive women inside the cigarette factory, is an ancient street cleaned up and freshly painted. The smuggler's lair in the mountains is an attractive warren of narrow passageways and high cliffs. Rosi does enlarge one setting for his opening and closing. As the matador Escamillo is part of the play, Rosi uses an almost intact bullfight to communicate the bloody essentials of the culture. The credits, in fact, play out over an extended shot of a profusely bleeding bull and will probably be a disturbing sight for neo-animal rights activists. Carmen cannot claim that no animals were harmed in the course of its filming.
Even better is Rosi's directorial approach. He's gifted with an unerring eye for camera placement, and doesn't over-direct with rapid cutting between angles. He'll truck through scenes when characters are moving, but rarely moves the camera for its own sake. Many scenes stay wide, retaining the composition of a painting. If one designs the shots well, close-ups aren't mandatory: the central character Carmen holds our attention in these tableaus by the strength of her performance. Pasqualino De Santis' cinematography is as sharp as a tack, which helps as well (especially in Blu-ray). Many newer musicals are cut at such a pace that dancing and singing are splintered into unrelated shots that don't even allow performances to be judged. A show like Chicago has capable dancers, but for all we know, we could be looking at somebody else's legs and arms in the dance numbers. Francesco Rosi's first priority is to display the opera and then to respect the performances. Ms. Migenes and others are singing to playback (I presume) but we see much of their work in extended takes. They're living the parts, not performing them in two-second bites.
One scene begins as a wealthy Seville family enjoys a paid performance by dancers in ornate costumes. The scene is covered by only two camera angles. One shows the entire family, adults and children gathered in chairs and on a rug, watching the act. The other shows the two dancers full frame. Around them is an impressive, grand room, almost empty. The effect is perfect; one wouldn't want to change a thing. An American director of today would probably be fired for filming a scene in this way. The dancers, by the way, are Cristina De Hoyos and Juan Antonio Jiménez of Carlos Saura's superb flamenco dramas. The choreographer is the famed Antonio Gades.
By not adding frills or comedy relief or extended directorial flourishes, Rosi keeps our mind off gimmicks and on the music, singing and dancing. The show's 155 minutes swoop by. Rosi's Carmen is an excellent show, and an excellent introduction to classical opera, in all its grandeur.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Carmen is just what I'd hoped for, a picture-perfect HD encoding of this fine musical film. Color values are precise and exciting, both in dusty streets and interiors that appear to be lit by firelight. The vividly bloody bullfighting scenes carry a double meaning. Like the matador, Don Jose wields the knife in the last scene. But like the bull he also suffers a slow personal destruction. The audio is rich, vibrant, and not recording-studio sterile. Crowd noises and the like are mixed into the music where appropriate, to good effect.
So far Olive Films has stayed away from extras of any kind, and I must note that a Region 2 DVD contains a making-of docu and a featurette taped on the film's sets. But Olive's step up to Blu-ray releases is a welcome development, especially when the result is something as pleasing to the eye and ear as Carmen.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Carmen Blu-ray rates:
1. Italian director Francesco Rosi is best known for intelligent and politically challenging crime films. He wrote with Luchino Visconti and soon went out on his own with a piercing series of mafia exposés that told the truth in a way no American film would dare. La Sfida (1958) and Hands over the City (1963) detailed how mafia corruption bleeds through levels of local and city government, ruining lives and stalling social progress. Rosi's 1962 Salvatore Giuliano is a demanding masterpiece about the death of a famous outlaw hero condemned as a terrorist, who in truth resisted the post-WW2 consolidation of the Mafia in Sicily, after the American occupiers reneged on a promise to grant the island sovereignty.
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T'was Ever Thus.