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By Phil Hall | September 15, 2007

Mark Donford-May’s attempt to update the Georges Bizet opera “Carmen” to a contemporary South African township is ambitious in concept, but the resulting effort is such a disaster that even the most forgiving lover of opera and African cinema will be left in an advanced state of pain.

In this go-round, the opera’s libretto is sung in the South African Xhosa language, most of the characters have their names Africanized (Don Jose becomes Jongikhaya) and various tweaks are made in settings (the army barracks becomes a police training academy). But for the most part, the Bizet opera remains in place.

What is not in place, however, is a competent production. Donford-May, a theater director with no previous filmmaking experience, is totally clueless on camera blocking and production design. The film often feels like a YouTube amateur pageant, with shaky handheld camerawork and dismal lighting that puts much of the action in shadow.

The cast comes from South Africa’s Dimpho Di Kopane theatrical group, but it is easy to assume they were yanked off the street and dumped before the camera: no one seems to know how to act. Most of the time, the cast stands around in a bewildered state, as if wondering how they wound up in this mess.

The leads, Pauline Malefane as Carmen and Andile Tshoni as Jongikhaya, have no on-screen chemistry – it often seems they are acting on a split-screen, as they barely connect with each other at any emotional level. Malefane, in particular, is a miscast joke – her blubbery figure and air of detached indifference makes her the least appealing Carmen in memory, and it is difficult to understand why the men in the film are in such wild orgiastic fury over such a dull and dumpy woman.

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