Classic opera travels to contempo South Africa and finds a comfortable home amid a shantytown setting in “U-Carmen eKhayelitsha.” This version of Georges Bizet’s frequently reinterpreted “Carmen” is spoken and sung in the click-punctuated African lingo of Xhosa and adapted to fit yarn’s shift south, with a semi-cinema verite style cleverly disguising the artifice of the work’s legit origins. Pic may displease purists, but broadminded opera buffs and upscale, politically conscious moviegoers should lift the film’s international profile as a novelty arthouse item.
Production literally comes in on a wing and a prayer, as funding was substantially via an arts initiative of the leading take-out chicken chain in Southern Africa. Company’s pay-off is in the form of one, not too imposing advertising sign in the titular township of Khayelitsha.
Carmensitha (Pauline Malefane) is a boisterous, strapping young woman who works in the Gypsy cigarette factory and sings part-time with the factory’s choir. Like previous screen Carmens, Malefane’s African version is a stoutly-built temptress who loves freely but is swayed by men who have the strength to ignore her. Such a man is Bible-toting cop, Sgt. Jongikhaya (Andile Tshoni).
When Carmen stabs a co-worker during a factory fight, Jongikhaya becomes her custodian. However, en route to prison, Carmen uses her arresting charms on her captor, convincing him to let her go.
As agreed, two weeks later Carmen meets with the now-lovestruck cop at the local cafe, where they become embroiled in a scheme to assist drug smugglers. Though Carmen laughs at her lover’s dependence, she is traumatised every time Jongikhaya does not answer her call. As they become more deeply enmeshed emotionally, their relationship escalates violently.
Yarn culminates on the day Carmen’s choir is to perform with traveling opera star Lulamile (Zweilungile Sidloyi) for a Freedom Day celebration. Returning from the deathbed of his mother, Jongikhaya seeks out his mistress, carrying the twin burdens of love and jealousy in uneven measure. Even for viewers unacquainted with Bizet’s opera, finale concert plays out to its tragic conclusion with a logical and powerful inevitability that validates pic’s reinventions.
Performances and singing are both on the money, and the film’s organic, realistic feel seems to have been bolstered by the translation contribution that thesps Malefane and Andiswa Kedama made to the screenplay. Malefane may not be everyone’s idea of a perfect Carmen, but she makes a riveting protag who dominates the screen.
British-born helmer Mark Dornford-May, whose background is in legit, originally mounted this “Carmen” theatrically in South Africa, where he has resided since 2000 as cofounder of drama school Dimpho De Kopane. Film’s visual highlight is its energetic overture, depicting busy township life through rapid editing and accelerated images. Dornford-May shows a genuine desire to relinquish the work’s theatrical traditions. When staging does appear theatrical – such as the early coffee- break sequence at the cigarette factory – helmer wisely foregrounds scenes with busy action to create a more cinematic atmosphere.
Unglossy lensing keeps pic rooted in the real world, and Bizet’s music makes for an invigorating point of departure. Though a couple of sequences use local music and dance to advantage, the two styles, Euro and African, are almost always kept at a distance from each other. All other tech credits are fine.