Lionsgate // 2003 // 119 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dylan Charles (Retired) // August 18th, 2008
A story of lust, betrayal, and seduction.
Carmen is based on the opera by Bizet and the story written by Mérimée. In fact, Mérimée is a major character in this version of the story. Mérimée (Jay Benedict) is a wandering Frenchman who comes across a bandit named José (Leonardo Sbaraglia). The bandit has a story to tell, but refuses to tell it until finally the bandit ends up in prison. The day before he is to be executed, the bandit tells his tale. José meets a beautiful woman named Carmen (Paz Vega), whose charms and wiles beguile him. So he leaves the army and joins up with her rebel band while he gets increasingly jealous and unstable. Yada yada yada.
Carmen is my favorite opera. The music has a vigor and liveliness to it. The story is decent enough, but it's really all about the music for me. So when I found out that this Carmen was all story and no music, I died a little inside. When you get right down to it, Carmen is just your usual love triangle, with two men vying after a powerful woman. In opera form, Carmen is almost a force of nature, some wild creature, whose charms are almost supernatural.
In this version she's a hooker. That's it. She has sex with guys for money. Which makes it hard to see the appeal that she has for José. Their first night together, she makes him pay. Paz Vega is a beautiful woman, no doubt, but this Carmen has virtually no redeeming qualities, no real appeal aside from her beauty and her willingness to have sex with anything that moves. While in other productions, Carmen is a free woman who does what she wants and lets José know this from the start, this Carmen is transparently manipulative and openly deceptive. There's little reason to accept that he would throw away his career and his life for this woman.
There's also the question of excess. I'm not one to complain about nudity, but holy mother of God, poor Paz Vega spent about a quarter of the movie sans clothes -- and that's probably a conservative estimate. If the only way a filmmaker can get across the concept of sex appeal is by having the character walk around in the buff for half the movie, then there's a problem. There's no subtlety here, just a sledgehammer applied by a one-eyed man on a caffeine jag.
The scenery is some of the most beautiful I've seen; the rolling Spanish country side with its jagged mountain peaks and ancient cities would be enough to make anyone's draw drop. With intricate costumes, beautiful sets, and a musical score that does its job with gusto, Carmen is a magnificent-looking movie, but it's so very shallow.
Paz Vega and Leonardo Sbaraglia are well-matched as leads. Sbaraglia manages to wring every bit of sympathy out of a role that invites very little, and Vega storms the scenes and steals them. Still, the fact remains that there's little there to get us interested in them. The most I felt by the end was a vague sense of pity.
Lionsgate hasn't packaged anything with the movie, but at least the presentation is as pretty as the picture.
When all is said and done, Carmen is guilty of offering an average, empty adaptation of a great work. Like, say, an opera without its arias.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated