u-Carmen e-Khayelitsha Review

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An adaptation of Bizet's opera, Carmen, set in South Africa. Carmen is a local factory worker, with a reputation as a heartbreaker. When she seduces a local policeman, he mutinees against his superior officer, and joins the bandits with whom she associates. When she leaves him, he loses his mind.


Transferred from the South African stage, Mark Dornford-May’s Xhosa version of Bizet’s opera won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Certainly the story’s relocation to the township of Khayelitsha is ingenius, while Pauline Malefane gives a powerful performance as the factory temptress who inflames the passions of religious cop Andile Tshoni.

But Dornford-May doesn’t always solve the problems of mounting so theatrical a conceit in a realistic setting. Thus, while he splendidly captures a sense of place during the overture montage, too many set-pieces remain stubbornly static. Still, a new drug-smuggling sub-plot pays dividends, while the denouement has a grimly tragic inevitability.

Bizet's music is superb, the township setting ambitious and the performances boldly vibrant. But the action doesn't always escape its stage origins and occasionally feels static and self-conscious.