Thanks to a lineage from Bizet to Beyoncé, Carmen is a name associated with temptation. The new drama “Carmen” is not based on the famous opera and tells an original story, but its heroine calls her community toward earthly delights nonetheless.
Carmen (Natascha McElhone) is the sister of a priest in rural Malta, the kind of holy man who chastises parishioners for singing too beautifully in church, and her joyless lot in life has been to act as his housekeeper. When her brother dies, Carmen is left without a home, money or a profession. But she’s free to live without the imposition of church authority.
Carmen steals the keys to the vacant church and begins to masquerade as the village’s new priest. She doesn’t say Mass, but from the privacy of the confession booth she happily advises long-suffering wives on how to rid themselves of their husbands. Donations to the church explode, and Carmen repurposes the funds liberally: She buys herself a makeover and sends a neighbor to Rome to pursue her dreams. The only danger to her good works is the possibility that a pious churchgoer might expose Carmen’s deception and reimpose rules that weren’t working before she took over.
There is a fable-like quality to this film, which plays a little loose with the details of the plot. It doesn’t quite make sense that in such a small village, Carmen’s schemes go largely unnoticed. But in a movie where the central theme is a divorce from orthodoxy, the writer and director Valerie Buhagiar makes the wise decision to orient her film toward what’s pleasurable rather than what’s logical. The Maltese countryside sparkles in the sunlight, and McElhone delights with a charming and slightly loopy performance as the irreverent spiritual leader.