Bizet's famous opera Carmen has been the subject of a few film adaptations, but the story of the cigarette girl from Seville can very easily be destroyed by rose stem-biting Spanish clichés and a foreign, idealised vision of Latin-ness. The music is undoubtedly and deliciously cheeky, but blowing a new lease of life into such a famous and archetypal opera is no mean feat.
And that's exactly what Mark Dornford-May's South African adaptation of the opera does, with superb results and moments of pure musical transcendence. It also beats previous efforts such as Francesco Rosi and Carlos Saura's re-readings of the story. The winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival 2005, the Xhosa language U-Carmen Ekhayelitsha achieves a perfect symbiosis between music, characterisation and mise-en-scene, with a degree of realism and authenticity that is absolutely rare in genre cinema. It could almost bear a Dogme 95 certificate because of its fluid camerawork and a strong sense of immediacy.
Shot in the township of Khayelitsha near Cape Town, home to half a million people, the film is also a triumph for local talent, from where the director pooled the cast for his Dimpho Di Kopane company. It is this combination of experience and new talent that gives U-Carmen eKhayelitsha a special type of energy; it comes across as a collective project which everyone involved seems to have given their hearts to. It works.
The producers also succeeded in their experiment with distribution. U-Carmen eKhayelitsha had its South African premiere in Khayelitsha in March 2005 in the very same building in which the last scene of the film is shot. A month long roll out in the same venue followed, with audiences of 1,500 people per day coming to see the film, and an extra screening time per day added in the last week. South African distributor Ster Kinekor snapped up the rights within Africa and U-Carmen eKhayelitsha opened at selected outlets last May. And the rest is hysteria.
Dornford-May faithfully includes elements of the original story with a great economy of signs – the bullfight in particular was very ingeniously re-written. Pauline Malefane, who also translated the original and wrote the script, is an earthy black Carmen who works in a tobacco factory - a talent to watch out for. A religious Bible-reading police officer falls prey to Malefane's Carmen who lures him to a drug trafficking operation. Sexuality is also adapted to the codes of black culture, with a sophisticated effect. Just imagine the erotic grammar of rap culture minus the bling.
Besides all the technical and artistic merits of the film, the idea of an European totemic cultural artefact being improved in Africa has a symbolic ring of inverted colonialism. Confident and rich in innovation, U-Carmen Ekhayelitshais genuinely a tour-de-force. Impossible not to be seduced by this Carmen.
U-Carmen Ekhayelitsha opens in the UK today.
Watch the trailer.