A typical reaction for a lot of people when they hear the word opera is to roll their eyes and scowl. For them this musical form is pretentious and burdensome. It is just a bunch of people running around the stage in elaborate costumes singing at the top of their lungs. Admittedly this has never been my favorite musical form but I can appreciate the qualities is contains. One thing that is overlooked even by a number of people who enjoy the opera is the story. They may get into the intrinsic beauty of the music and the amazing range and control required by the singer but they get so caught up in that part of the presentation the story behind the music is lost. As such there are many films that take the story of an opera and relate it as a straight forward drama. One of the latest to hit the DVD market is the 2003 version of ‘Carmen’. This is one of the most popular operas and the story contains themes that are universal and pass the test of time. Most people are either familiar with the 1875 production by Georges Bizet or at least one of the many film translations that have appeared over the years. Even people who don’t follow opera know the famous music of the Toréador Song. It is also one of the most performed operas in the world demonstrating the way the audience is able to relate to it. In this production some familiar elements have been changed. Fans of the opera have to understand that changing formats and media required alterations in the way the story is presented and commonly in some of the plot elements used. Overall this is a solid attempt at retelling a familiar tale of lust, deception and betrayal.
This variation was co-written and directed by Vicente Aranda. In the scripting department he was joined by Joaquim Jordà. For the story they went back to the source, the original novel by Prosper Mérimée, a well known and popular short story writer of the eighteen hundreds. His novella was the original basis for the opera but even there some changes were necessary for operatic presentation. In this variation some changes were made in the basic romance between the leads. Due to the nature of film some of the scenes were very explicit and nudity is present; just a warning to parents. That is if there are any kids out there that would be willing to watch anything related to an opera. There is also the addition of a character that represents the author. This adds a form of narrative that does help to progress the story. Jordà has considerable experience in producing screenplays almost exclusively in his native country of Spain. His works include representations of most genres particularly drama and thrillers. He also has some documentary and biography scripts so he is a very well rounded author. Adding to this is work as a director and actor giving him a good feel for all aspects of film production. As a co-writer Aranda also has a long and varied resume. He is considered on of the most famous Spanish film makers around today. He has a classic style that is unmistakable. His attention to detail is famous among his peers. Aranda has built his career bring Spanish literature to life on the big screen. He often employs themes of social significance and tends towards the melodramatic especially in his more lust laden scenes. His perchance for erotic themes fits perfectly for the character of Carmen. This is a woman literally with a killer body. To love her is to fly too close to a flame and it will ultimately consume the hapless, lovelorn victim.
This film is beautifully set and staged. The sets and costumes are simply put incredible. The attention to detail is astounding to behold. There is a texture underlying this presentation that will sweep you into the story and not let you go. It is almost as if you were transported back in time to Spain of the early 1800s. Aranda is expert at doing this. The richness of the film is apparent from the opening shot and never falters for a moment through the duration of the film. He is also a director who knows how to present a beautiful woman. Aranda’s leading lady here, Paz Vega, is only now getting some work on this side of the Atlantic. She is sultry, gorgeous and exudes sex appeal. Okay, my wife is going to make me pay for these remarks but they are completely true. Vega was born to play this role. She can pull off the half gypsy have witch femme fatale with perfection and a undeniable flair. The woman can also act well which is a real bonus. Too many American actresses try to get by on looks alone but this is the real deal. Aranda paces the film to perfection. He gets right into the set up for the story by establishing the main characters and letting the audience become familiar with them. There is an underlying sense of pageantry to the production that will help fans of the opera feel more at home and hopefully allow them to be willing to overlook the conceptual changes in the story. The one major drawback of the film is there is a lack of chemistry between Ms Vega and her male leads. They all make an excellent try at making it work but unfortunately it falls short of making a believable connection. For a story with lust and passion at its core the emotions should leap off the screen. Perhaps the cast should have been shown something like the 1981 erotic thriller, ‘Body Heat’. Now that was the way these scenes should have been done. It is almost like the script tries to make up for this by adding an unwarranted and unnecessary vulgarity to the dialogue. I realize that this was to place the characters in a particular time and place but it comes off as distracting from the underlying story lines. It starts out as earthy and raw but soon degrades into muddy and distracting.
In the story Carmen (Paz Vega) is ostensibly a cigar girl that is she makes the cigars. She seduces a military man, Jose (Leonardo Sbaraglia) and leads him to distraction. He is so infatuated with the young woman that he is demoted from his rank of lieutenant, is derelict in his duties and jailed. Okay, when it comes to beautiful women men can be especially stupid; nothing new there. Add to this her habit of shedding her clothes and every man watching will understand the lure that Jose subject to and why he gave up so much. The film is crafted so well it is a shame that the actors failed to bring the proper emotional responses to the movie.
The film is released to DVD through Lion’s Gate. They are fantastic for locating the best in independent and foreign films and providing the much deserved wider exposure. This is not a perfect film but it is a strong contender and well worth watching it. The screener provided for preview was in Spanish with English sub titles.