Where many films have captured Malta visually, few have portrayed the soul of the Maltese isles as well as Carmen, the easy-going flick hiding an intense plot amidst the whimsical and cultural reverie. 

Based on writer and director Valerie Buhagiar’s own family, Carmen (nothing to do with the opera nor novella) is a sweet and simple tale, one that can be plea­santly enjoyed on a relaxing date night with a bucket of popcorn and a sneaked-in bottle of water.

It is also a fable, its deeper meaning tucked away between the colourful characters and sentimental air that floods the theatre and settles deep in your chest, warm and snugly. It is a deep and thoughtful film that requires a local eye to see past the casual breeze, because beneath it is a storm of poignant commentaries on our religious tendencies, all told with rose-coloured glasses and a healthy amount of modern hindsight. But most importantly, it feels Maltese.

The film is told through Carmen’s (Natascha McElhone) eyes, a newly unemployed (or, to put it more bluntly, freed from her indentured servitude) 50-year-old maid who has spent her entire uneducated adult life waiting hand and foot on her priestly brother.

I’ll give you three if you smile… Paul Cilia and Natascha McElhone.I’ll give you three if you smile… Paul Cilia and Natascha McElhone.

Once he is sent to meet his maker, Carmen finds herself lost in an unrecognisable but familiar world, a life filled with choices, but which are, for the first time in her life, hers to make.

This is the digestible surface-level savouriness that carries the film – Carmen is a fish still in water that needs to learn new tricks now that her only purpose has suddenly evaporated.

Yet, there are already a litany of questions that shadow the seemingly benign community of ’80s Malta. It seems absurd to think that not so long ago this patriarchal society was the norm, but does it? Malta has always had, and still retains, a religious fanaticism that rivals any other devout state, and Carmen subtly points out what that means to a country and its people.

Natascha McElhoneNatascha McElhone

It’s a positive force as the tight-knit community congregate under one roof, whispering gossip in between sermons and meeting new people with an instant common belief. But, on the other hand, that gossip is malicious and shunning.

It is a love letter to a bygone era

Just like that, I began to spiral from thought to thought as hints of serious themes are brushed past in favour of Carmen’s story of love and self-discovery. Buhagiar never wastes time pointing out the abundant depth layered under the surface, yet it is there, as clear as day and ready to be explored by those who wish it.

The casualness that each cha­racter has towards all these issues – misogyny, adultery, consent, age gaps, depression – is what drives the message home – dystopian mentalities disguised as conservative views.

As much as it may stray elsewhere, Carmen always returns to religion. Homeless, Carmen breaks into the church she once lived in to sleep, eventually hiding in the confessional when familiar parishioners walk in expecting the new priest to have arrived.

Writer-director Valerie BuhagiarWriter-director Valerie Buhagiar

Thinking that he is already in the virtuous box, they confess, and Carmen has no choice to put on a gruff-ish voice and help them. Once daunted, she acclimates herself to this new position, and slowly the power she holds turns into shades of greed.

In other words, Carmen becomes the church: an innocent believer with kind and shy intentions becomes hooked on the power she has over her ‘followers’, the donation box a ripe reward for her righteous work.

Her forced addiction with religion transforms her, the church once a crutch and a purpose now a means to an end, either monetarily or egotistically. These constant menacing undertones elevate her flawed humanity, adding a well-needed perspective to a story that is already intellectually and entertainingly lucid.

As brooding as it may sound, Carmen is far from a melancholic drama. Unlike Merjen, Buhagiar (with the aid of local producers) uses her titular character as a way to focus the myriad of intimidating undercurrents into a nostalgic trip down recent history.

Falkun Films producers Pierre Ellul and Anika Psaila SavonaFalkun Films producers Pierre Ellul and Anika Psaila Savona

The churchgoers, although riddled with petty sins, set an incredibly wholesome backdrop as their various sub-plots are impossible to not empathise with. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing every time a wife shouted at her overly flirtatious husband, or any time the same young couple are seen in the background furiously kissing in the corner.

It is a love letter to a bygone era, a time that I was not a part of but feel that I can recall ancestrally. I can’t help but think of all the Sunday lunches spent at my nanna’s, eating her braġoli and listening to her talk about the years she misses, but also the ones she would rather forget.

Malta has a complicated history and begs to be retold, gene­rally falling incredibly short of the mark as Blat and Blood on the Crown try to recapture these tenuous moments with none of their grace and complexity.

Carmen reproduces the routine, seducing me with its wistful poise and its graceful austerity, unafraid to brazenly be Maltese, warts and all.

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