‘Carmen’ (2022) Review: A Pleasurable Drama that Rediscovers a Woman’s Desire

Inspired by a Maltese tradition, Valerie Buhagiar’s Carmen follows the titular character, played by the wonderful Natascha McElhone, in servitude to her priest brother. When her brother drops dead, she is lost but takes solitude at church and becomes the voice of many people in the village. A hysterical and heartbreaking film that shows Carmen finding a place in a world that has long forgotten about her. This story is inspired by Buhagiar’s aunt, who lived a lonely life with no one to look after her.

From ages 16 to 50, Carmen is forced to live at her priest brother’s rectory and work as a maid. She lives a joyless life taking care of her brother and fulfilling his every need. When he drops dead at the rectory, Carmen is thrown out to the streets and asked to live somewhere. She has no family, no money and no profession. She steals the keys to the vacant church and pretends to be a new priest. She listens to the worries of the wives and advises them to get rid of their husbands. The news of the new priest’s kindness spreads through the small village, which results in the church receiving a lot of donations. She takes the money — all for good use — and buys a makeover for herself and helps a neighbour to go abroad and fulfil her dreams. But when the new priest’s sister, Rita (Michela Farrugia), moves into the rectory and finds out about Carmen’s deceit, she must figure out a way to search for a new calling before everything is taken away from her.

Carmen is a pleasurable film. It is about a woman who has suffered because of religious and traditional customs — patriarchal customs that dictate women’s lives. From a woman in forced solitude to someone trying to survive by deceiving others, it is quite understandable why she does it. No one around her has been nice to her. Everyone looks down on her because she has to take care of her priest brother, which wasn’t a choice offered to her. It was forced upon her to follow the tradition of her village.

Through glimpses, Buhagiar shows a young Carmen (Roberta Cefai) being carefree and holding hands with another man. As the story progresses, the lover is revealed to be Ahmad (Chakid Zidi), someone her family doesn’t approve of. But Carmen isn’t a story about lost love. It’s a story that rediscovers her desires for love and passion, and she is ready to overtake them. After Carmen gets caught masquerading to be a priest at the confessional booth by Rita, she steals the chalice and candlesticks from the church and heads over to a pawn shop. There, she meets Paulo (Steven Love), a cute pawn shop operator, and she becomes infatuated with him. The story doesn’t turn into a romance. It becomes a sexual awakening for her. The momentary feelings that she has towards Paulo are something that was buried deep inside her for religious purposes. It’s not necessarily about Paulo leading her back to life, rather she tries to find her footing in a world dictated by patriarchal values and norms.

Carmen is a delight. There’s humour and sadness, all piled together into this memorable movie that speaks volumes of how a woman’s life. It’s about finding family and discovering their sense of belonging. Even when Carmen doesn’t make the wisest decisions, it is fun to watch. She steals the keys and sleeps in the church. She pretends to be the new priest and advises one of the parishioners to leave her husband by cooking the same meal. Even her entire journey is guided by a pigeon! All the performances in Carmen are delightful, especially McElhone, who brings a charming approach to the lost woman. The setting is iridescent, and the beauty of Maltese shines bright in the background. None of her actions would be approved by the Vatican, but that’s not the point Buhagiar tries to make in the movie.

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