Set in the sprawling shantytown of Khayelitsha and sung entirely in the Xhosa language, U-Carmen is a rousing and imaginative contemporary adaptation of George Bizet's 19th-century opera Carmen. The debut feature of British director Mark Dornford-May, it's impressively sung and performed by the Dimpho Di Kopane theatre company, and stars Pauline Malefane as the titular cigarette factory worker, who seduces the Bible-reading policeman Sergeant Jongikhaya (Andile Tshoni) with fateful consequences.
No prior knowledge of the original opera is required to enjoy U-Carmen, with the filmmakers successfully breaking free of the story's stage origins to create a dynamically cinematic work. An early montage sequence, cut to Bizet's grandiose music, introduces us to the thriving Khayelistha township community inhabited by the characters. Shot in long, fluid takes, the rest of the film unfolds within this naturalistic world of pool halls, bars, courtyards, factories, barracks, and concert halls.
"SENSUAL AND INDEPENDENT CARMEN"
Dornford-May and his co-writers flesh out the Don Jose character of Sergeant Jongikhaya through a series of sepia-tinted flashbacks. The knowledge that he was responsible for his own brother's death and that he was expected by his mother to wed his sibling's widow ensures an even greater charge to his chemistry with the sensual and proudly independent Carmen: confronted by romantic rejection, one fears he will resort again to violence. With the trained opera singer Malefane excelling in the musical passages, this, together with the recently released Tsotsi suggests a resurgence in South African cinema.
In Xhosa with English subtitles.