- Director: Valerie Buhagiar
- Writer: Valerie Buhagiar
- Starring: Natascha McElhone, Steven Love, Michaela Farrugia
When we’re first introduced to Carmen, the titular heroine of writer/director Valerie Buhagiar’s film, she seems to be in the throes of a comfortable life. She’s the sister of her Maltese town’s Catholic priest and, despite the fact that nobody in town likes or respects her, she’s mostly content. She’s live with him in the parish’s rectory since she was 16, and she considers her role as his care-taker her own full-time job. Naturally Carmen is a woman of strong religious conviction, so when her brother suddenly and unexpectedly dies, leaving her essentially homeless, she begins to question exactly how big a role her faith should have in her life going forward.
In these early stages of the film, Natascha McElhone plays Carmen as beaten down and depressed, hardly knowing what to do with herself. But one day she accidentally sits in the priest’s confessional booth and gives some un-priestly but sound advice to a few of the locals. Movies about religion – or movies with characters with a strong religious background – tend to either mock their beliefs or go too far off the deep end and begin preaching to the audience.
It’s to Buhagiar’s credit that she treats Carmen’s faith simply as one of many facets of her character, rather than her entire personality. And Buhagiar thankfully has the good sense to abandon Carmen’s deceitful foray as the town’s advice-giver before it gets to be too cartoonish. Rather, the gimmick is used to shore up Carmen’s self-confidence as she slowly begins to realize her value to the community. She may still technically be homeless but she upgrades her wardrobe and dyes her hair to rid herself of her predominantly gray hairs. There’s an understated but smart theme to the film about a distraught woman learning to listen to herself. One of Carmen’s biggest changes is in how she initially follows whatever she feels God is telling her, which manifests itself in a pigeon (which threatens to be a little too cutesy).
The second half of Carmen morphs into a romantic comedy, as she meets a Canadian-Maltese transplant named Paulo (Steven Love) when she goes to pawn a few keepsakes (read: stolen items) from the church. McElhone and Love have palpable chemistry together, even if Paulo feels mostly underwritten. Buhagiar also throws in a subplot about Carmen’s lost love from her younger years to an Arab man which we mostly see in brief snippets, but this doesn’t feel as essential to the story overall.
Valerie Buhagiar’s credits are mostly in front of the camera, and it shows in her depiction of Carmen as a lost soul in need of guidance. Buhagiar has only directed a handful of features, but the subtle way she focuses on who people turn to in the hours of need shows a confident hand behind the camera. There isn’t anything particularly egregious about the film, but there isn’t much worth celebrating either. It certainly feels like a kind of passion project for Buhagiar, in that it’s based on true events, and it’s set in her native Malta. The film is likely to be swallowed up upon its release once studios begin to release their awards slate (not to mention another film also named Carmen directed by Benjamin Millipied). Regardless, Carmen is light and inconsequential enough to feel like a worthwhile time at the movies.
Carmen will be available in theaters and on VOD on September 23.