It is always wonderful to see films push the boundaries of conventionality and tell stories we may think we already know in a new fashion. Directed by Benjamin Millepied, Sony Picture Classics’ latest release is Carmen, an odyssey of a Mexican woman coming to America for refuge. Her run-in with a border patrol officer who saves her life is told with a subtle surrealist aspect that is pleasantly surprising. Carmen gives elements of wonder and magic throughout, but pieces are missing here and there.
Melissa Barrera plays Carmen, the daughter of a powerful Bruja who lives together in an isolated desert town in Mexico. Mysterious men abruptly kill her mother after searching for Carmen, but here we see how strong the women in this story are as Carmen’s mother looks her killers straight in the eye without fear. After her mother’s death, she begins her journey to the City of Angels, Los Angeles, per her mother’s vague instructions. The world Carmen exists in is vibrant, magical, and intensely gritty.
Carmen’s border crossing coincidentally happens the same night Adian, played by Paul Mescal, has his first shift as a reluctant border patrol officer. Their meeting is bloody and violent, causing them to escape the crime scene together and evade the police. Throughout their journey, the duo’s connection and struggles are communicated through song and dance, an unexpected turn of events occasionally coming out of nowhere.
A surrealist dance sequence intertwines many of the most intense and emotional scenes. Not all of them fit in the film, but many of these musical numbers are a chance to show the strength of Mexican culture and the sacred bond between kin and fellow emigres. The shared love of music and dance amongst the Mexican women in the film illuminates the wealthiest parts of Mexican women as they exude power and authorship over themselves when music plays, and they come alive with passion as they dance and sing through their hardships and celebrations. Carmen is a beautiful film that finds beauty in the direst circumstances, mimicking the tenacity of Mexican immigrants who sacrifice so much to come to Los Angeles and embrace their culture.
Sometimes Carmen lags as it can get lost in a story that was not entirely told, leaving a lot of room to question, “Did I miss this part?” or “I think I get it, but did I?” It is a film similar to Bardo: Falso Chronicles of a Handful of Truths from Alejandro G. Inarritu in the way it examines the internal identity struggle of a man from Mexico who contemplates his life as a successful filmmaker in Los Angeles. Both films have surrealism woven throughout, yet Bardo is given nearly three hours to explore the story, whereas Carmen is constrained to less than two hours.
Score: 3 out of 5
Carmen is a beautiful ode to the strength of Mexican people and their women, but there needed to be more development in the characters and the narrative’s world. Visually it is a stunning piece that is almost impossible to look away from at certain parts. Unfortunately, the pacing was inconsistent as the film would grab and drag you along until something intense happened. The message spares no viewer from the consequences of the natural world, but the magical elements help make the sting of reality a little easier to swallow. Carmen is enjoyable but does not show that it knows precisely what it is trying to say.