Skip to main content
The Independent Critic

Pauline Malefane, Andile Tshoni, Zweilungile Sidoyi
Mark Donford May
Georges Bizet, Mark Dornford May
Rated PG
120 Mins.
Koch Lorber
 "U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha" Review 
The 2005 winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, "U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha" is a spirited, seductive interpretation of Georges Bizet's classic opera, "Carmen." The film is spoken and sung entirely in Xhosa, one of South Africa's 11 official languages, and the entire cast is comprised of local stage actors & actresses with no prior film or opera experience.

The end result should send Steven Soderbergh, with his novice experiment "Bubble," into hibernation for years to come.

"U-Carmen," as I will refer to it, was filmed entirely in the township of Khayelitsha near Cape Town in South Africa and nearly its entire production budget was funded by South African businesses appealing to South Africa's growing middle class.

"U-Carmen" is currently playing at the Indianapolis International Film Festival, and it felt particularly appropriate to view the film on South Africa's "Freedom Day," the day marking the end of apartheid in South Africa.

The film combines the best of Bizet's opera with a genuine reverence towards South African culture. While the music of "Carmen" oozes out of every corner of the film, it is often blended with genuine African beats, rhythms, songs and traditions. The result is a film that exudes the life and spirit of the slums of South Africa without every making light of the challenges that exist within.

As "Carmen," Pauline Malefane is hypnotic and enchanting as the seductive young woman who woos because she can. Malefane, who began singing in local choirs and attended the University of Cape Town's School of Music, projects both confidence and vulnerability with equal believability and conviction.

American audiences are likely to compare Malefane to Queen Latifah. Both actresses are non-traditional beauties (TRANSLATION: They are NOT skinny with perfect breasts) with powerful singing voices, a strong stage presence, an outward confidence and both possess a rich sensuality that literally pours out onto the big screen. Indeed, Malefane's approach to the arias of "Carmen" is understated, as opposed to the typical flamboyancy that often accompanies the opera. This results in a "Carmen" that slowly and quietly draws you in rather than powerfully pulling you in. It's more like a slow, simmering stew that finally boils over.

Watching the entire cast, not all of whom speak Xhosa as their native language, sing the magnificent heights of "Carmen" in this tongue-clicking language is literally an awesome experience. By honoring the cultural traditions of South Africa in this film, co-writer and director Mark Dornford-May created sound effects and an atmosphere that allowed for the perfect blending of the very unique Xhosa language with the dynamic richness of Bizet's work.

Also offering a strong performances is Andile Tshoni as Jongikhaya, the subject of Carmen's seduction. While Tshoni doesn't quite offer the emotional variance of Malafane when he goes from disinterested officer of the law to a man willing to forsake nearly everyone and everything to have Carmen, he does offer a strong voice that communicates with tremendous clarity his growing weakness in all matters related to this woman with whom he falls in love.

The entire cast, many of whom are active in Dimpho Di Kopane, an ensemble lyric theatre company, a South African theatrical company started in 2000 that has achieved tremendous international acclaim in a short period of time.

Lungelwa Blou, Zweilungile Sidloyi, and Zamile Gantana also provided strong performances in supporting roles.

Charles Hazlewood's original music is a fine interpretation of Bizet's work, and Dornford-May's use of actual township slum areas adds intensely to the mood of the film. The cinematography is generally effective, however, there were multiple shots in which the lighting was a bit off-balance which created difficulty in watching the facial expressions of the characters as they spoke. Likewise, while the authenticity of the sounds of South Africa is to be admired it was, nevertheless, at times a bit too convoluted to be understood. This would seem to be especially true for those not familiar with South African languages and dialects. It is to the credit of the entire cast that this was seldom distracting, and on more than one occasion I was so immersed in the characters before me I completely forgot I was reading subtitles.

"U-Carmen", as directed by Mark Dornford-May, is as rich and captivating and multi-faceted as the character on which it is based. Based upon a story that is, at its very essence, quite tragic it is hard to deny that this film is also quite inspirational in the beautiful way in which it captures the heart and soul of such a magnificent city.

"U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha" is as Carmen always has been and always should be...inviting, seductive and impossible to resist.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic