Carmen

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Ah, Natascha McElhone: It’s been a long time. This wonderful actor has kept busy on TV in recent years, but I find it’s been two decades since I saw her in a movie, the underrated Steven Soderbergh version of Solaris. Now McElhone assumes the center and title role of Carmen, a gentle and attentive film in which her character loses a dead old identity and gains an exciting new one, as well as a community that values her. There are certainly less pleasant ways to pass an afternoon than watching McElhone’s Carmen find peace and joy. Best of all, it unfolds on the beautiful island of Malta, given the glow and hue of Heaven itself by its writer-director Valerie Buhagiar, herself of Maltese heritage.

Carmen has spent most of her life looking after her brother, a dour priest at an ill-attended church. When he dies, another priest is sent for, as well as his sister who will look after him; there’ll be no place for Carmen at the church any more — or so everyone thinks. Carmen hides away in the building, sneaking into the confessional box and listening to the church members’ sins. Instead of sitting in judgment, Carmen offers the people advice, and they take it gratefully. It’s not that Carmen ever leaves the church; it’s that she casts off her former thankless role in it and tries on a new persona, one that may also be capable of love with a young pawn-store owner (Steven Love).

Buhagiar is said to have based Carmen’s story on the life of her aunt, but guessing what events in the film have real-world analogues won’t do much for us or for the movie. Past a certain point, aside from a detour with Carmen on a boat with a less than gracious host, what happens to and for Carmen is what Buhagiar and we want to see happen. The overriding vibe of the film is warmth, from its star and from its setting. After watching ugly people fight each other amid junk and debris in last week’s Samaritan, I was really ready to spend time with Natascha McElhone learning to smile again with a preternaturally soothing backdrop. Soothing — that’s the word for Carmen in general. The complications in the plot (including the new priest’s sister, who shows up at the church before he does) are easily overcome. The film believes in its happy ending(s), so we do too.

This friendly daydream of a movie should be seen by some of you folks who’ve been wanting something like it — it doesn’t have a rating, but I’d put this at PG at most, possibly even G. It’s set in the ‘80s but could’ve been made in the ‘50s. If you can’t stream it later this month, it hits DVD in October. But if you can find it on a big screen within a reasonable drive, Malta will not disappoint you. Neither will McElhone.

Carmen doesn’t say much; she’s not used to speaking (which I guess is what makes her a good listener). So McElhone does much of her work with her expressive face, sometimes her hands or body language. The movie feels like a gift offered to McElhone in kindness, and she reciprocates by conveying a deep kindness herself, made deeper when Carmen finds out she deserves some kindness too. In a lesser movie, Carmen would leave the church altogether, but we see here that, although a lot of her life supporting her brother was drudgery, a lot of it engaged her and gratified her. So why shouldn’t she stay and be herself within the church, improving it from there? The movie is far from Catholic propaganda; from what we see it doesn’t matter what faith, if any at all, is practiced in the building. It’s all about the community seeking wholeness there.

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