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As much a portrait of a slum township in South Africa as an eccentric adaptation of a famous operetta, U-Carmen (full title: U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha) transposes the tale to Cape Town, with the actors speaking and singing lyrics translated and adapted into Xhosa, Nelson Mandela's native tongue. The 2005 movie is neither a stunt nor a novelty but a full-blown musical. The gypsy seductress of Seville becomes Carmenshita of Khayelitsha, a singer who wrecks the life of a sergeant in the township constabulary. Director Mark Dormford-May proves that the operetta has universal appeal; with very little tailoring, the original story fits the new location like a glove.
At first U-Carmen is amusing just to see how a story about 19th century gypsies transposes to an entirely different culture. Carmen is still a troublemaking siren but her associates sing in opera festivals while helping to land contraband on the beach at midnight. The smugglers stand out amid the township's tin shacks because they drive cars and use cell phones. Don José is now an ordinary sergeant in the police force, while the bullfighter Escamillo has been re-cast as Lulamile Nkomo, a celebrity singer visiting his hometown. Perhaps the cleverest change of all sees the bullfight transformed into a ritual sacrifice at a feast. We hear the animal cry out, and then Lulamile wipes the blood from his knife.
Carmen is essentially the same, a woman who knows the power behind her sex appeal. She toys with the men that pursue her and takes the ones that don't show interest as a personal challenge. The original operetta described Carmen as attractive despite the fact that she's not a standard beauty. U-Carmen begins with the comparison, showing lead actress Pauline Malefane intimidating the camera with a haughty stare. The characters in U-Carmen correspond to an African yardstick of beauty; by our standards they seem much too heavy. Malefane's Carmen carries herself proudly. Some adaptations of the operetta take the story as a straight seduction in which the noble Don José is brought low by Carmen's irresistible allure. This version is complicated by our awareness that Jongi has already murdered his brother back in his rural village and secretly feels unworthy to be a police officer. Jongi's superior officer is not a romantic rival but a corrupt predator who extorts a promise of sex from Carmen in return for her freedom.
Its takes us a moment to realize that the singing is in Xhosa, not French. Actresses Pauline Malefane and Andiswa Kadama did the adaptation and we simply follow along with the subtitles. Although the underscore and some song intros use African rhythms, the orchestrations are mostly standard. The project was filmed in conjunction with a noted South African opera company called the Dimpho Di Kopane, which also provided the on-screen talent. Interestingly, U-Carmen is a more successful adaptation than Otto Preminger's 1954 Carmen Jones, which forces the original operetta into an awkward form. In U-Carmen the township singers are already amateur operetta hopefuls. Although the music is European, the culture presented is definitely not.
Director Dormford-May uses a series of fast trucking shots to establish the township and takes pains to remind us that ordinary life is going on around the characters. Sexuality is expressed in song and the occasional dance. No lovemaking scenes or nudity appear, although when Jongi meets Carmen, a cigarette girl throws him a condom as a joke: "You'll better use this if you want her!" We're told that the film's premiere was held in the same community hall seen in the film's finale, and U-Carmen is a local accomplishment worthy of a wide audience. It took home the Golden Bear from the Berlin International Film Festival.
Koch Lorber's DVD of U-Carmen is an excellent enhanced transfer of a handsomely filmed production. Colors are bold, with rich skin tones. Tasteful art direction brings visual order to the shantytown background without undue glamorization -- it's still a dry and dusty place.
The welcome extras are a making-of featurette, a trailer and interviews with Mark Dormford-May and his two co-writers. The director and the articulate Mss. Malefane and Kadama give interesting accounts of how the Dimpho Di Kopane works, and how the film came together. The subtitles are removable, and I wish the title was too -- "U-Carmen" sounds like a sequel to Das Boot, with singing submariners.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, U-Carmen rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Making Of featurette, trailer, bonus interviews
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 26, 2007
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