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Review: Carmen

August 19, 2022

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Carmen, the third feature from writer-director Valerie Buhagiar, is a Canadian-Maltese co-production (it closed the Canadian Film Fest earlier this year) that is set in a small village in Malta.

The title character, Carmen (Natasha McElhone), is the sister of the local priest (Henry Zammit Cordina), whose life essentially consists of being her brother’s keeper. When her brother dies suddenly, Carmen is left alone and unsure of what to do. She has never been on her own before, and constantly overhears the other villagers talking about how lonely she is.

Buhagiar’s film is essentially about a repressed middle aged woman getting a new lease on life, but Carmen’s journey doesn’t necessarily follow a conventional path. The narrative at times feels elusive, with a few magical realist touches (i.e., omnipresent pigeons who seem to communicate with her). The story basically unfolds through a series of coincidences, and it feels somewhat threadbare in places. The film hints at several deeper themes, but is too lightweight to fully grapple with them as a whole, and the characters end up feeling a bit surface level.

The strongest and most amusing storyline finds Carmen getting inadvertently stuck in the confessional box and mistaken for the new priest, offering absolution to locals who don’t realize it is a woman giving advice. She takes money from the offerta box, asking Jesus for forgiveness, but feeling she is owed the offerings for her service to the church. Through this, Carmen does subtly explore a woman’s role within the Catholic Church, with the film being inspired by the Maltese tradition of eldest sisters devoting their lives to their brothers who are priests. Carmen also develops feelings for a younger man, Paulo (Steven Love), with her struggling to allow herself to feel the spark of romantic attention.

The film’s bright cinematography captures the sunshine and colours of Malta. It doesn’t exactly fall into the category of a travelogue, but does somewhat function as one. The story feels feather light, but does have some effervescent, feel-good moments. It’s charming enough, pretty to look at, and carried by a good performance from McElhone, who brings enough substance to her portrayal of the title character to keep us watching.

Carmen is now playing in limited release in select theatres, and will be available on Digital & VOD platforms on September 30th. It’s being distributed in Canada by Vortex Media.

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