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Film Review: Carmen & Lola

by A.R. Solar

The multi-nominated, double Goya-Prize-winning feature debut from Arantxa Echevarria caught me by surprise. I hadn’t heard of it and, if I expected anything, it was that it’d be a casual, modern romp-com told from an LGBTQ angle. It is, I’m happy to say, much much more than that.

Carmen is a vivacious almost-18-year-old who is, as her father has arranged, about to be engaged to a boy her age. Like her, he is part of the Romani culture in a poor section near Madrid. (In Carmen & Lola, the Romani call themselves “gypsies.”) Lola is an introspective almost-17-year-old trying to explore her lesbianism via cybercafe computer in a neighboring Romani area. The two meet by chance at Lola’s family’s vegetable stand in the bustling outdoor market. Though their encounter is brief, Echevarria conveys (in an extreme close-up) a tender, tiny, skin-to-skin touch that neither woman will soon forget.

It’s in those convincing, gentle, loving moments between the two girls that you first experience the deep insights of the director and the thrilling talents of Pilar Sanchez Diaz, the cinematographer here. 

In scenes where the men of Carmen’s family and those of her soon-to-be betrothed meet to formalize the engagement, what’s on display is tradition, yes, but also an entrenched, unapologetic patriarchy. When Carmen herself finally enters the room in her future-bride regalia and is “given” to her boyfriend’s father, any moderately enlightened viewer will feel queasy. As the relationship between Lola and Carmen develops ever so gradually, the patriarchal lash isn’t as subtle.

Two days after experiencing the film, I’m still haunted by a scene where Lola’s mother confronts her. Her mom – a previously balanced, if stern, figure – gasps, wails, and pleads with her in a harrowing conveyance of sheer internal terror. And that’s before the father, prone to disturbing violent threats, is brought into the hysteria.

By this point, we have seen the craft of Echevarria’s hand – effective whether the touch is delicate or ferocious. Sanchez Diaz’s camera, as it ought to, enhances the director’s voice through deeply felt angles on the characters and settings.

This is a Spain not often depicted on film. The Romani neighborhoods are crowded with people and even more packed with emotions. Perhaps the filmmakers’ greatest triumph is bringing to the screen such a real rendering of a culture that – at least as written in this movie – doesn’t balk at showing the rawest of emotions, whether it be joy, through Flamenco dance at a party, or pain, through the fear of being excommunicated from the culture itself, by the fathers and sons of the patriarchy.

the international CRITIQUE rating: ★★★★★