Veteran Spanish helmer Vicente Aranda turns in his best film for over a decade with the slick, accomplished “Carmen.” Though pic wins no awards for subtlety, it’s attractively lensed, well played and intelligently scripted, hoisting it well above standard bodice-rippers. Since opening Oct. 3, “Carmen” has taken a shapely $4.4 million in its first 17 days, with local legs still to run. Given its attractive cast, universal appeal and an exciting, complex and contempo Carmen by thesp Paz Vega (“Sex & Lucia”), offshore chances look enticing.
Taking his cue from the original Prosper Merimee novella rather than the Bizet opera, Aranda returns the tale to the real, historical world without sacrificing its blood ‘n’ sex Spanishness. He also dusts off a couple of his old themes — the destructive force of jealousy and women’s sexual freedom as a threat to machismo.
Merimee (Jay Benedict) is a writer and archeologist doing research in southern Spain in 1830 when he comes across a bandit, Jose (Argentine thesp Leonardo Sbaraglia), on the run for murder. Shortly after, Merimee meets Carmen (Paz Vega) in a cathedral. While she’s reading his cards, Jose bursts in and, in a jealous rage, orders Merimee to leave.
The next time the two meet is in Jose’s prison cell, as he awaits execution for another murder. Jose tells Merimee the story of his life, a lengthy flashback which occupies most of the rest of pic.
As a sergeant in the occupying forces, Jose meets the temperamental Carmen while breaking up a fight in a tobacco factory between her and another girl. Carmen has a reputation for being a “zorra” (bitch), but also a witch, owing to her ability to see into the future.
While Jose is leading Carmen to prison, she works her considerable charms on him and he lets her escape — for which he’s demoted to private. When they meet again, Carmen’s working as a prostitute. Jose’s interest shifts from his job to being with her. When Carmen returns to the brothel one night on the arm of the lieutenant (Joe Mackay) who’s Jose’s superior, Jose kills him. So begins a lonely, hopeless killing spree dedicated to making Carmen his and his alone.
The Carmen/Jose relationship is presented as sexual — sometimes explicitly and brutally so — rather than romantic. Carmen is a woman who uses her sexual allure as a way of having fun, and also achieves a little power in the process.
On her advice, Jose retires to the mountains, joining a gang of bandits led by Dancaire (Joan Crosas), of which Carmen’s husband, One-Eye (the dependable Antonio Dechent), is also a member. With such a well-known conclusion, it takes something special to make the story feel new; but Aranda and d.p. Paco Femenia come through with the goods, with a memorably staged climax featuring a naked Carmen and Jose locked in a dance of death.
The script by Aranda and Joaquin Jorda is careful to present Carmen as more than just a cardboard cutout. Vega more than delivers with the flashing-eyed, spitting, fruit-sucking cliches of Andalucia, but she’s also careful to find space in her perf for a ruthlessly egotistical woman with her finger ever-poised over the self-destruct button.
The unfortunate Jose is unable to interpret her, and the tragedy is that the one thing he desires — that Carmen be his and his alone — is the one thing she’ll never concede. However, Sbaraglia struggles to energize the essentially passive, baffled and emotionally buttoned-up soldier, and his perf loses color as Jose starts to become a killing machine.
Though Vega and Sbaraglia generate the necessary heat — physically, the two thesps are not dissimilar — many of the supporting performances are merely adequate: Benedict, especially, overplays the unpleasantly superior Merimee’s stiffness. Other minor characters are entertaining but uniformly one-dimensional, and the dialogue is too often declamatory.
Still, pic does visual justice to a range of locations both urban and rural, with the interiors of Cordoba’s mosque and Seville’s cathedral standing out. Period refs abound and are nicely woven in.