The Old World, picturesque island of Malta is many people’s idyll for escaping the modern, Western world to experience a simple, timeless way of life. As many of us have seen from the political forces afoot today that want to drag us back socially 100 or more years, nostalgia can be a real pisser. Maltese director Valerie Buhagiar knows all too well what dangers lurk in the past. Her new feature film, Carmen, set in a small town in Malta in the 1980s, uses humor and good will to reveal the repressive culture behind the picture-postcard image.
Natascha McElhone plays Carmen, the put-upon sister of a priest who was forced to sacrifice her own life and happiness to meet his needs and the expectations of her family. Gray-haired, dressed in black, unsmiling, and silent, Carmen manages the rectory, cleans up in the church, and snaps to her brother’s commands like a dog. When he dies unexpectedly, she is unceremoniously thrown out of her home as the new sister to the new priest takes over. With no job, no home, no money, and nothing but the monsignor’s assurance that she will find paradise after she dies, Carmen must use her wits and divine providence in the form of a pigeon to remake her life.
One might imagine that Carmen would be both excessively devout and thoroughly beaten down by her decades of servitude, but somehow she has managed to retain a sense of self that allows her to do the unthinkable—steal a key to the church to have a place to stay, take collection-box money and gold artifacts from the church to pawn, and most shocking of all, hear the confessions of parishioners who think she’s the new priest. Her advice to one woman who would like her drunkard of a husband never to come home again is both legal and effective, bringing a stream of disgruntled wives to the confessional to find their own way toward liberation.
McElhone is marvelous as she brings out not only the mischievous side of Carmen, but also her wisdom as she relates some painful truths about the island’s xenophobia and misogyny to a new friend and an old adversary. Her sadness over her thwarted life has settled into a mature acceptance of that which she cannot change, but her proactive actions to help other women escape their lot and find personal fulfillment show that she believes better times are possible.
In a title card at the end of the film, the producers dedicate Carmen to Daphne Caruana Galizia, a crusading journalist in Malta who was murdered for her activism, as well as to the other Maltese women who are working for change. With this lovely and wise film, Buhagair certainly can be counted among these changemakers.