On the Mediterranean island of Malta, it was a tradition that when a man became a priest and took over a parish, his sister would come with him to serve as a housekeeper. Valerie Buhagiar, a Maltese-Canadian writer and director who was born on Malta in 1964, went back for a visit in 2003 and discovered that her elderly Aunt Rita, living in a care home, was one such young woman. That discovery served as the motivation for her to write and direct her film, Carmen.
British actress Natascha McElhone plays the title character who has spent her life serving as a housekeeper for her brother, the priest of the small village church. He unexpectedly drops dead and Carmen is left without a home and a livelihood. When she goes to visit the bishop to tell him of her situation, he consoles her by saying that God will provide for her – after her death. She’s asked to leave the church so that the next priest and his sister, Rita (Michela Farrugia), can move in.
Filmmaker Valerie Buhagiar (Credit/ Good Deed Entertainment)
Having nowhere to go, Carmen sleeps in the church. Waking up one day, she sees a pigeon, probably one of the many she religiously fed, sitting in the confessional, seeming to beckon her inside. She sits in the small enclosure where her brother once heard the sins of his parishioners. A woman comes in and begins to confess that she hates her husband and wishes he wasn’t there. Carmen’s advice: feed him the same meal each day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The woman thanks Carmen and places all of her coins in the donation box. After the woman leaves, Carmen takes the coins and treats herself to a meal at a local restaurant.
Natascha McElhone (Credit/ Good Deed Entertainment)
Carmen sees Rita meeting the young man who rings the church bell each day. They are in love and Rita laments her fate, not being able to marry the young man, instead being tied to her brother. But when Rita’s brother delays his arrival, Carmen continues to occupy the confessional booth and listen to people’s sins. Her practical advice, taken to heart by so many, results in more people coming and more money being dropped into the church’s box.
Soon, Carmen’s gray hair is gone and she no longer walks around the village as a lost soul. Is the pigeon, who continues to guide her journey, a spirit, Jesus? Since she’s helping people – the woman comes back to report that her drunken, abusive husband has disappeared – she gains confidence that she’s doing the right thing.
Steven Love and Natascha McElhone (Credit/ Good Deed Entertainment)
Perhaps thinking that all the years she spent at the church were worth more than a few coins, Carmen takes a chalice and candlesticks and brings them to a pawnshop in a neighboring village. The shop’s owner, a young Canadian named Paolo (Steven Love), is intrigued by the older woman. After paying her, Paolo pours some wine which Carmen drinks too quickly. She falls asleep on his couch, but nothing happens between them. With her newfound money, Carmen buys a red dress and pays Paolo another visit. He takes her on a motorcycle ride to the coast, but being there triggers Carmen’s flashbacks about a past lover and how much she gave up to fulfill a family obligation.
Natascha McElhone (some may recognize her from playing first lady to Kiefer Sutherland’s president in ABC’s Designated Survivor), transforms herself from the dowdy church Carmen to the lady in a red dress opening herself up to new loves and adventures. Buhagiar’s script, a lovely gesture to her Aunt Rita, shines a light on the island’s out-of-date traditions without disparaging the people who, at one point, adhered to those rules. (The film is set in the 1980s, so we hope that’s no longer true.) Dialogue, in English and Maltese, conveys the diversity of the island, long timers living alongside newer arrivals, like Paolo. Cinematographer Diego Guijarro captures the postcard beauty of Malta’s streets, coast, and the Mediterranean, but also the people.
According to Wikipedia, film production has contributed to Malta’s economy and, no doubt, has also increased tourism. Carmen may continue that newer tradition.
Carmen will be released in the U.S. Theatrically in major cities and on VOD in the U.S. and Canada on Friday, September 23. In New York, the film will be screened at Cinema Village.
Top photo: Natascha McElhone in Valerie Buhagiar’s Carmen (Credit: Good Deed Entertainment)