Devotion to a church or a cause is, for many people, a true calling in life. Those who join the priesthood describe hearing a call to that life and dedicate their lives to it. On the island of Malta, a tiny island nation in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, it is also a tradition that when a man hears that call, his younger sister goes with him. In theory, this is to devote her life to the church. In practice, it appears that it is to ensure that the new priest has a servant.
In Carmen, Natascha McElhone plays such a woman; having lived a life of servitude since she was 16 and set free 34 years later when he brother dies, suddenly she has to rediscover her own life and desires. What follows is a lovely journey of self-discovery that takes Carmen around the sun-drenched, 1980s set Maltese countryside.
A few factors make this film work, and the first among them is McElhone herself. She gives an excellent performance as Carmen, with the joy in her life returning little by little as she realizes her own agency. There’s a lovely moment early on when she has her hair done for the first time in presumably 30 years where you can tell from her body language that her sense of self is returning, and that brings happiness as well as trepidation because she doesn’t really know what to do it with joy yet.
As her journey continues, leading her to hear confessions in the church in a scheme to support herself, to a romance with a younger man, to the scenes where we finally find out her back story, McElhone’s light, energy, and empathy shine through in each.
It doesn’t hurt that the film is set in Malta either because even if you don’t buy into the story, the whole movie is gorgeous. Better than any travel marketing campaign the nation could have asked for, the Malta in Carmen feels frozen in a specifically non-specific mid 20th century time, and the villages and vistas throughout are never not gorgeous. This is the kind of movie where you should praise cinematographer Diego Guijarro, but the landscape certainly must have made their job easier.
Carmen is a tale of a woman finding her bliss again, of a life rediscovered, and passions rekindled. A lovely, comforting character study that feels like a warm hug (and will make you want to travel). The very definition of a feel-good movie and one to watch when you have the chance.
Carmen played as part of the 2021 Whistler Film Festival.
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