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Carmen Is An Easy Sentimental Comedy With Dark Shadows
Small town cutesiness and a bleak tale of abuse.
Comedy-dramas are so common viewers rarely think of them as contradictory. Valerie Buhagiar’s Carmen, though, is unusually conflicted about its genre commitments. The humor elements are broad and hammy, steeped in treacly small-town cuteness. The serious story, in contrast, exposes a disturbingly brutal strain of small-town violence and cruelty.
Buhagiar never resolves this tension and doesn’t even exactly seem to be aware it exists. But the film still manages to be effective, thanks to the breathtaking cinematography and a marvelous performance by Natascha McElhone in the title role.
The Story of Job, But With a Smile
Carmen, a meek woman in her late 40s, is the maid and housekeeper for her brother, who serves as a priest in 1980s Malta. The sister’s life is arid and largely joyless. But it gets even worse when her brother dies suddenly, and she’s turned out of the rectory. The scene in which she tries to convince an ecclesiastical official that she truly has nowhere to go and no one to care for her, only to be met with smug, bland indifference, is quietly nightmarish. Buhagiar frames Carmen weeping against the interior architecture rising around her, a soul abandoned in a stark and unhearing stonework hell.
But the spiritual aridity of the opening is quickly, and even glibly, abandoned. God shows he cares for Carmen by sending her a pigeon as a guide. The bird leads her from the street where she’s been sleeping back to the church, where she fortuitously hides in the confessional. The new priest hasn’t shown up. Parishoners think Carmen is he when she is concealed and starts dispensing decidedly heretical advice, most of which involves telling women to follow their dreams, even if that means disobeying their husbands or fleeing their families.
The transition from utter despair to sentimental empowerment is served with a big helping of off-putting corn. Frank Capra and Steven Spielberg hover around the Malta streets, pouring Hollywood syrup over the tale of spiritual despair. It’s a little like watching the parable of Job as told by Walt Disney.
Even so, McElhone goes a long way towards selling it. The grey-haired, frightened woman we see in the initial sequences blossoms, opening up as the cinematography pulls back to show the beauty of Malta’s landscape and coast. McElhone’s whole face transforms when she smiles, and her joy is shot through with a mischievous blasphemy that is entirely winning. It’s easy to see why the much younger Paulo (Steven Love) falls for her instantly. And it’s equally easy to understand why Carmen’s successor in the rectory, Rita (Michaelia Farrugia) more than half thinks her predecessor is a witch come to tempt her from the path of piety.
All Is Forgiven, Sort Of
Carmen’s skepticism and unexpected rebelliousness seems to come out of nowhere, initially. But over the course of the film, as you learn about her past, you come to understand that she has every reason to mistrust and resent the people of Malta and, for that matter, God. She has visceral personal reasons to identify with women crushed by tradition and patriarchy. Her own bravery and adventurousness in romance aren’t newly discovered. They’re part of a self she was forced to abandon, and is picking up again.
The revelations about Carmen’s history add shades of nuance to McElhorn’s performance. Buhagiar and her lead are telling you who Carmen is with that smile, with the clothing she buys, with her every choice and surprising rebellion, before the narrative fills you in. Many movies use tragic backstories to give characters depth. But here the history simply explains the layers you’ve already seen. It’s deft and compelling filmmaking.
Which makes it all the more frustrating when the ending switches back to Hollywood schtick. Carmen’s anger and pain are powerfully and convincingly portrayed; they’re wound through her every moment on screen. But as we approach the final quarter of the film, that pigeon starts to fly about the stunning Malta shore, obligingly spattering reconciliation everywhere. The last scenes abandon any pretense of realism, narrative or emotional, in the interest of a weepy happy-ever-after.
It's frustrating to watch a potentially great film turn so firmly and unapologetically towards mediocrity. But so it goes. Commercial considerations are what they are, and it doesn’t seem like Buhagiar really has the heart to pursue the bleaker implications of her narrative in any case.
Carmen is a frustrating and flawed movie, which betrays its own best self in many respects. But a lot of movies don’t have a best self to betray. Ultimately, it seems like Buhagiar loves her main character too much to fully explore the barren landscape of her pain. That’s regrettable. But Carmen, sitting in the confessional, listening intently with that wonderful smile, would no doubt say that it’s a forgivable sin.
First published September 2022.
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