2022, NR, 87 min. Directed by Valerie Buhagiar. Starring Natascha McElhone, Steven Love, Michela Farrugia, Peter Galea.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 23, 2022
This Carmen is not the Carmen of Bizet’s beloved opera and its many artistic offshoots. The Carmen of Valerie Buhagiar’s film is a woman who discovers her true self amid the stifling social conventions of 1980s Malta. Natascha McElhone plays Carmen, a downtrodden woman at the start of the film who finds joy and community acceptance by the movie’s end. Maltese writer/director Buhagiar emphasizes the character’s transformative path rather than her pitiable starting point, and with the help of some suspension of disbelief and a symbolic pigeon (no, not a Maltese falcon) Carmen comes into her own. The final warm embrace of the people who had previously scorned Carmen wraps the film in a feel-good ending that rewards the viewer’s concern for her general welfare and erases the sting of the repressive and patriarchal customs that are the original causes of the character’s troubles.
The Catholic Church in Malta at the time maintained a time-worn tradition that required the eldest sister of any man who joined the priesthood to devote her life to taking care of her brother. In addition to becoming his maid and house servant, the girl would receive no education, salary, or family of her own. Carmen moved into the rectory with her brother as a teenager, and by her middle years (when we first meet her), she is an unsmiling wraith always dressed in black. The few parishioners in their small village church gossip about her cold and withdrawn demeanor, and she jumps every time her brother barks a command. Fortunately, Buhagiar doesn’t dwell on too much on the story’s harsh setup, all the better to move Carmen on to her chrysalis stage, which forms the heart of the movie.
Truly, Carmen follows a seemingly magical pigeon from one open door to the next. She wanders the village, always carrying her suitcase, in which she has wrapped a broken bell chime from the church’s steeple. She literally lets her hair down, substitutes her basic black dress for a red one, and at night begins sleeping in the church’s empty confession booth because she has been evicted from the rectory while the congregation awaits the arrival of the new priest. Carmen steals candlesticks from the church and tries to sell them to a cute American antiques dealer (Love), who also drives her around on his motorbike, imbuing the film with a strong sense of Buhagiar’s native Maltese scenery and a wisp of romance. Soon, Carmen’s shadowy figure in the confession booth is mistaken by some parishioners for the new priest. The unconventional advice she doles out agrees with the penitents, who don’t ask too many questions, and leads to Carmen’s discovery of her true calling. Viewers needn’t wonder whether Carmen’s sad previous life has come to a close. Everything is focused on the future. But will the broken bell rod ever be repaired so that Carmen can finally get her bell rung? My advice? Follow the next pigeon to Malta for the answer.
Available on VOD now.