From 1996 to 2006, the British-born actress Natascha McElhone appeared in 16 feature films, 5 in 2002 alone. Most were forgettable, but four (“Surviving Picasso,” “The Truman Show,” “Ronin,” and “Solaris”) were excellent.
Starting in 2007 and continuing to the present day, McElhone was a regular in the acclaimed TV shows “Californication,” “Designated Survivor,” “The First,” “Hotel Portofino,” and the current “Halo.”
Sporting Bette Davis eyes, Meryl Streep cheekbones, wavy locks, and a model’s gait, McElhone has never appeared in a movie or TV show where she was the sole lead, until now. In a role that 25 years ago would have gone to Streep by default, McElhone plays the title character in “Carmen,” a romantic comedy and drama which takes full advantage of her physical presence and considerable range.
No More Nursemaid
For her entire adult life, Carmen has been the handmaid and indentured servant for her nameless older brother priest in a small Maltese village. Pale, gaunt, withered, weathered and clad in black, we can tell within seconds that Carmen is beyond depressed.
Things go from bad to worse after her brother suddenly dies and the leader of the local archdiocese (with a smile) tells her she’ll have to vacate the rectory to make room for the incoming younger replacement priest and his quasi-slave sister Rita (Michela Faruggia), leaving Carmen homeless.
After walking the streets and sleeping on the church roof for a couple days, Carmen gets crafty. She posts a note on the door of the church stating mass is temporarily cancelled but confessions will still be heard, knowing parishioners generally drop coins and cash in the poor box after confessing to their recent sins.
Protected by the anonymity of the confessional booth (and dropping her vocal register a notch or two), Carmen “borrows” the identity of the new priest and listens to confessions. Rather than instructing the sinners to say two Hail Mary’s and four Our Father’s for penance, she gives them useful, real-life advice.
In one instance, when a woman wants her cheating, alcoholic husband out of her life, Carmen tells her to make him the same meal every day, and he’ll eventually leave out of boredom, and he does. The word spreads fast that the new priest is hip to the plight of women and suddenly Carmen has developed something of a “Dear Abby” following and, with it, more donations for the poor.
Applying a form of pretzel logic, Carmen, being poor, assumes temporary ownership of the money while promising a nearby statue of Jesus that she will pay it back, which she eventually does. She also gives some it away to a woman with dreams of singing opera in Rome.
For the first time in decades, Carmen is happy and feels good about herself. A dye job and a new red dress puts some spring in her step and, when ogled by a trio of younger men, she laughs and delivers them a hearty wolf whistle.
Things don’t always go as Carmen might have wished, man-wise. At first, a budding romance with the much younger Paulo (Steven Young) hits a bump in the road and another encounter with the slightly older Tom (Richard Clarkin) gets close to becoming ugly.
Canadian-Maltese writer-director Valerie Buhagiar regularly employs two vastly different variations of fantasy into the mix. The first has a pigeon “leading” Carmen to various objects and locations, which prods her into taking chances she likely wouldn’t have tried on her own.
There roughly a dozen or so insertions of millisecond-long flashbacks dotted throughout the narrative which are initially disorienting but all tie together before it all ends.
As with this week’s other new release (“Lou”), “Carmen” is set in the 1980s. In both movies, this was done to make the appearance of modern-day electronic devices impossible, but here it is when the true life story that inspired it actually happened.
In the press notes, Buhagiar states it is based on the life of an aunt. Just how much it is fact and how much is fiction isn’t detectible and really doesn’t matter. In much the way as “Under the Tuscan Sun” and, to lesser extent, “Eat Pray Love” and the 2013 Spanish language “Gloria,” it focuses on a reserved woman in middle age who discovers a previously untapped wellspring of confidence and brio who finally takes charge of her own destiny.
Presented in English with frequently subtitled Maltese, Latin, Italian, and Spanish.
Director: Valerie Buhagiar
Stars: Natascha McElhone, Steven Love, Michela Faruggia, Richard Clarkin
Running Time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: Sept. 23, 2022
Rating: 4 out of 5