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Karmen Gei
cast: Djeinaba Diop Gai, Stephanie Biddle, Djeynaba Niang, and Magaye Niang

director: Joseph Gai Ramaka

84 minutes (unrated) 2001
Kino NTSC DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Amy Harlib
A magnificent and most recent incarnation of mid-19th century French novelist Prosper Merimee's perennially popular character Carmen arrived in New York City for all too brief art house and festival cinematic appearances and thankfully can be found on video and DVD. The enduringly fascinating story of the free-spirited, lover-girl and her tragic fate has been adopted innumerable times in a wide variety of theatrical formats. Inspired by one of the best known, Bizet's opera version, Senegalese writer-director Joseph Gai Ramaka sets his Karmen Gei in his home country, in the contemporary coastal capital of Dakar and gives the tale extra heft and relevance by adding and emphasising underlying themes of resisting political oppression and expressing personal freedom.

The amazingly talented, incandescently charismatic, statuesque, breathtakingly beautiful and delightfully, deeply, darkly complected (as opposed to the dismayingly racist Hollywood practice of casting leading women of colour as light-skinned as possible), star performer Djeinaba Diop Gai, portrays the eponymous role. In her presentation, the character embodies that rarity - a woman so in touch with her goddess-nature, so full of passion and life, so independent yet adoring of everything and everyone around her that the overwhelming brightness of her spirit makes lesser mortals pale (no pun intended) beside her, yet they cannot help but adore her in return.

Nevertheless, it happens that Karmen Gei's songs and dances of protest against the corrupt local government get her sent to jail where her performances for the inmates (as seen so compellingly in the very opening scene), make her their favourite and even wins the heart of Angelique (Stephanie Biddle), the prison warden. The ensuing tasteful yet sensuous lesbian love scene (an unprecedented shocker back home in Africa), serves to illustrate that Karmen's intense lust for life transcends all barriers of gender and class and literally embraces everyone. The protagonist soon beguiles Angelique into letting her go to resume her life partying at Ma Penda's (Djeynaba Niang) nightclub and helping a den of drug smugglers run by two men: lighthouse keeper Old Samba (Thierno Ndiaye Dos) and Massigi (El Hadje N'diaye), both of whom amicably accept Karmen's polyamorous ways.

Not so tolerant we find Karmen's most fateful conquest, the love-starved, small-time army officer Lamine (Magaye Niang) who's so smitten by her that he loses his commission and the love of the police chief's daughter. Lamine, unemployed and disgraced, joins Karmen's coterie, but his mindset and soul (shrivelled by his lifetime of colonial bureaucratic brainwashing), cannot accept the subversive, freewheeling ways of the underworld. Thus Lamine, unable to control or possess Karmen and insignificant beside her outrageous flamboyance, allows his rage to propel him towards the tragic denouement. This ending's sad irony becomes all the more poignant because Karmen, for all her blithe abandonment, possesses enough self-awareness to know she has earned whatever destiny awaits her because of her actions, but she regrets nothing nor slows down.

Director Ramaka's production refreshingly unfolds its story in the form of a naturalistic musical, with chanting in the streets, impromptu drumming and dancing jams and saloon pop ballads taking the place of conventional big production numbers. The nearly non-stop score does take breathers from time to time for the pleasing ambient sounds of a beachfront city: the lapping of waves; the whistling of birds; the rustle of fabrics; and the sighs and caresses of lovers. Resuming quickly, however, and filling in the relevant backstory by the harmonious choral singing of various townspeople performed in the African traditional call-and-response style, music is shown to be an inseparable organic part of the characters' lifestyles and makes for a truly wonderful soundtrack rich in exciting avante-jazz saxophonist David Murray's riffs punctuating the glorious more traditional sounds from numerous African performers. Dance features equally prominently, for Karmen's opening, spirited, sensual dance gets repeated throughout the movie - intoxicating shaking, shimmying, foot-pounding, high-energy movements that work up photogenic beads of sweat and loosens clothing in gestures that seem to demonstrate that nothing can confine her.

The film Karmen Gei does contain minor flaws (somewhat uneven pacing, and insufficient development of the implications of what a truly free, independent woman would mean in the story's West African environs). But these are more than compensated for by the astonishingly gorgeous, dusky and lovable star performer surrounded by so many other talented people of colour and the dazzling array of lovely costumes; eye-catching local Dakar colour; fine cinematography; fabulous music and dancing; and overall atmosphere of exuberant sensuality that the heart-tugging melodramatic storyline cannot suppress. Karmen Gei, the movie and the character, according to director Ramaka's vision, represents the irrepressible spirit of life - joy and love persisting in the face of tragedy here presented in an incredibly entertaining, magnificent production that may be the best version of this enduring legend ever if not the most visually stunning.
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