Perhaps it’s ultimately a good thing that the “coming out as gay in a repressive culture” subgenre has, by 2018, become familiar enough to have evolved its own clichés. It is however a bit unfortunate that Arantxa Echevarría’s well-meant and sincere “Carmen and Lola,” which charts the burgeoning love affair between two young women in a Madrid Roma community, has to embrace so many of them.
While the overarching narrative is now familiar to the point of blandness, what differentiation Echevarría does achieve is largely down to the insights, observed by Pilar Sanchez Diaz’s handheld camerawork, into the rites and rituals of Spanish Roma culture. There is little mixing with the mainstream, and even those kids who go to school among the “Whiteys” (as it is translated) — meaning anyone from outside this rigorously codified and hierarchical community — are in a small minority.
Sixteen-year-old Lola (Zaira Romero) is one of the very slightly more liberated younger generation, with her mother Flor (Rafaela León) wanting better prospects for her daughter than the life of illiteracy and making-ends-meet that she has led. Lola’s father Paco (Moreno Borja), however, is more suspicious of the outside world and, as long as there is “food on the table,” does not understand why Lola might desire anything other than to help out on the family’s market stall, before early marriage and motherhood come to occupy her days.
But Lola, a graffiti artist with an idle interest in ornithology, does desire other things, as leadenly established in an early scene where she sneaks into an internet cafe and googles “Madrid Lesbians.” And when she meets Carmen (Rosy Rodríguez), a sassy, leggy 17-year-old who is engaged to Lola’s cousin, that desire takes human form. Carmen is at first horrified by the revelation of her new friend’s lesbianism, but gradually realizes that she reciprocates Lola’s romantic feelings. A giggly, chastely presented love affair of hand-holding and kissing in deserted stairwells and drained swimming pools ensues.
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The largely non-professional cast acquit themselves well, with Romero and Rodríguez embodying a certain type of opposites-attract chemistry. Lola is quieter and more thoughtful, a tomboy who teeters when forced into high heels. Carmen is brassier and more outgoing, a firm adherent of the “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” school of fashion, which is ironic given that one of the assurances her father has to give to the father of her potential groom, is of her unsullied, unworldly purity. “She has never gone out unaccompanied,” he claims, “She doesn’t even own a mobile phone.”
Part of the issue with “Carmen and Lola” is that gitano culture (to use their own word) is solely presented in terms of its stifling, constricting effect on its young women, and so it’s hard to invest in a real sense of dilemma. Its traditions, music and glitzy pageantry are all presented as aspects of a fundamentally regressive and unpleasant ritualization of women’s subjugation to men, from the songs they sing to the clothes they wear to the religious services they attend, which are portrayed as less a source of comfort or an expression of faith than a respectable way for girls to meet potential husbands.
Though Roma life must have its compensations, here it is presented simply as something from which any thinking young woman would surely long to escape. Even Carmen’s young, handsome fiancé, whom she scarcely knows, has to reveal a dark side — how much more interesting and dramatic it would have been had he been a genuinely decent, viable proposition for Carmen’s future. Similarly the leading ladies themselves are given little real characterization outside of their tentative, blushing mutual attraction. In stacking the deck this way, Echevarría has sapped “Carmen and Lola” of some of its dramatic potential, electing instead to make a pleasant but linear, single-issue movie, which is compassionate and deeply felt, but also tidy and tamed, just like first love isn’t.