People often come to the church looking for God… but is he really there?
Directed by Valerie Buhagiar, Carmen (Nastascha McElhone) is the younger sister of the current town priest. Designated as his caregiver, she lives a lonely life of shame and desolation. The priest is a harsh man, touting strict discipline and pervasive sinfulness of the soul. But when he passes away suddenly, Carmen suddenly has nowhere else to go. Sneaking into the rectory, she hides out in the confessional only to have the townspeople begin to treat her as their new priest, without knowing her identity. Offering advice infused with grace, Carmen brings light into the community instead of the burden of shame.
Starring Natasha McElhone, Carmen is a delightful yet savage satire of the church and its role in society. Set against the stunning Maltese countryside, Buhagiar infuses a certain dryness to the landscape. It’s a bold choice for the director, especially considering the beauty of the area. Nevertheless, Buhagiar allows her colours to become muted and minimize the visibility of water, highlighting the fact that life has been drained from the community. However, as the film progresses, this begins to change. As Carmen begins to rediscover her voice and passion, slowly vivid colours and water begin to return to the screen.
As Carmen is revived, life is restored to the community.
Best known for playing roles with quiet charm, McElhone shines on screen, coming alive slowly as the film progresses. Carmen is a woman of courage and strength yet lives in a place of repression and shame. As a result, McElhone gradually becomes a light in this community of darkness, and it’s a role that suits her well.
Although, what really makes the film interesting is that it separates God from church. Within the church, the Christ figure is one of harshness and depression. Images of Jesus on the cross wearing a bleeding crown of thorns are ominous and oppressive. However, for Carmen, it becomes increasingly clear that God is not like this in reality. Taking the form of a pigeon (and a sassy one of that) or a stranger simply riding by a bicycle, the Carmen‘s practical experience of God is very different. Smiling and playful, this conversation joyful in his engagement with life. In this way, Carmen suggests that the God that the church proclaims is actually very different in reality than he is presented through theology.
Having come from a doctrine of shame and the sinfulness of man, Carmen has been told that there is very little room for the celebration of good in life. (“Sin, sin, sin. All you ever talk about is sin [and] you know nothing of sin!,” she exclaims.) Here, however, she is drawn towards love, service and joy by a God of vibrancy.
For Carmen, God inspires the her dying soul and helps her rediscover her life.
Interestingly, because of this division, Carmen is able to navigate its criticism of the church without setting fire to the faith. With honesty and boldness, Buhagiar highlights the brokenness of the church and the severity of its doctrine. However, through Carmen’s journey, she also sees the value of a God who invigorates the spirit and brings it to fullness, instead of draining it of life. Because, to Buhagiar God doesn’t necessarily live in the church that was built for him.
Carmen is available in theatres on Friday, August 19th, 2022.