U-Carmen eKhayelitsha Mark Dornford-May

This is Bizet’s famed opera Carmen translated into Xhosa and performed in modern-day South African locations. Carmen (Pauline Malefane) is the spitfire who loves and leaves as she sees fit, and winds up dead as a result; her opera is a perennial tale that could easily lend itself to eccentric interpretations. Would that we had one here.

Director Mark Dornford-May is the man behind the production, who started the Dimpho Di Kopane theatre company that begat the performers here, and many of them shine in the movie. There’s no denying the talent on hand (Malefane, in particular, is a standout in the title role) but my mind wandered throughout the screening and I can’t say you should rush out to see it.

There’s nothing exactly wrong with it: the voices are great, the location is apropos and Bizet’s music demands the full Dolby treatment it receives. But despite its prize at Berlin, I’m overwhelmed by the "not terribly interesting” direction and the fact that I have no idea what it’s driving at. If it’s simply an update, it’s lacking in purpose; if it’s a political tract, I can’t decipher it; and if it’s an excuse to put on an opera, it’s lacking the stylistic chops to push it over the top.

What the whole thing needs is wit — not the thudding connection between the opera’s poverty and South Africa’s but a genuine program that would not try to fit things into Bizet’s mould and perhaps manipulate the opera instead of playing it straight.

It’s not a bad movie but it’s slightly earnest about very vague notions, and I’d rather it be a stronger creative force. (Mongrel Media)