Director Arantxa Echevarría’s Carmen and Lola opens with a stunning scene of Carmen (Rosy Rodriguez) in a very ornate outfit, about to be presented as a wife to another family within Madrid’s Roma community. What gives the scene its power is cinema’s unique ability to blend the visual, auditory, and narrative. We witness Carmen sitting on a bed looking stone-faced and gloomy, decked out in the fanciest of outfits as we hear a chorus of people singing off camera, “que guapa esta la novia” (“The bride, she is so pretty”). The cinematic language is clear—Carmen’s future is orchestrated by her community; but she is not excited about her dictated future.
The community may be overjoyed but Carmen is not. Echevarría continues to drive her thematic point through cinematic language in the subsequent scenes. We see chunks of butchered meat, fruits, vegetables, vendors advertising their produce in singsong announcements to passersby, negotiating prices by the kilo. Carmen works in an open-air market with her parents. Her body is a commodity just like the produce sold at the market, which–based on her looks, her family’s reputation, and her abilities as a future housewife and mother—will fetch a certain price and will solidify family allegiances within her community. But it is in this same market that she meets the daughter of another vendor, Lola (Zaira Morales). And it is there, in the heart of where commodities are exchanged, that Carmen and Lola find secret spots, talk, share a smoke, and take the first steps in their love affair.
Lola’s family clings to her Roma heritage and are very religious. Lola, however, knows she is a lesbian even while surrounded by messages portraying gay or lesbian relations as sinful. Carmen, on the other hand, suffers from an internal dilemma. She knows she is attracted to Lola, but still has retains remnants of a heteronormative ideology that makes her question her relation with Lola. Adding to Carmen’s dilemma is her impending marriage to a man handpicked by her parents.
The building in which Lola and a large number of her fellow Roma live is flanked by a police tower. The tower serves the dual purpose of monitoring the nearby highway and the building. Lola and Carmen feel trapped both by a community that prescribes very rigid gender roles and sexual preferences and a police state that keeps a panopticon-like eye on “dangerous” communities. They long for escape. In what is perhaps the tenderest scene in their love story, Carmen asks Lola how they are going to pull off being together. Lola innocently answers that they are simply going to “love each other.” After they love each other, one is left to wonder—then what?
Carmen and Lola is undeniably a sweet love story. Echevarría is also very good at plunging the viewer into the rituals and customs of the Roma community. It must be said, however, that there is no new narrative wrinkle etched by Echevarría. The film is a rehash of the timeless story of lovers longing for each other in the face of forces—family and community—trying to pull them apart. Some characters are very one-dimensional. Lola’s father spends nearly the whole movie in the typical brutal father mode of anger and aggression. Some of the metaphors for escape—birds, planes, and the sea—are also overused rehashes. Once we witness the scenes that transmit the culture that Carmen and Lola inhabit, once we witness the tenderness in their relationship, we have to ask the question that hangs over Carmen and Lola’s unoriginal narrative—then what?
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