Two Roma women living in the suburbs of Madrid fall in love, leading to them being rejected by their community.
A look at Spain’s close-knit gitano community through the eyes of a lesbian teenager
Theis nergetic first feature from Arantxa Echevarria combines a vibrantly realised sense of place and Spain’s gypsy community with assured work with a cast of non-professional actors. There are moments when the volatile emotions on screen tip over into shrillness; there are occasions when the symbolism feels a little too heavy handed. But for the most part, Carmen & Lola is a spirited addition to the gay culture clash genre.
There’s a sun-kissed sensuality to the burgeoning relationship between the two teenagers
Life for a young Spanish gypsy woman is tightly woven into the traditions and expectations of her close knit community. And for a while at least Carmen (Rosy Rodriguez), a 17-year-old from a Roma family in Madrid’s suburbs, is happy to follow the expected path of engagement, marriage and a life of subservience. Then she meets Lola (Zaira Morales), who stares at her in a way that makes her rethink her whole world view.
There’s a sun-kissed sensuality to the burgeoning relationship between the two teenagers. Echevarria’s camera captures tiny, tender intimacies like the brush of two hands, the stroke of hair. It’s fair to say the two highly photogenic stars will be a eye-catching marketing asset for the film. Likewise, the use of music – there’s a sense that the characters are always on the brink of bursting into song and dance – makes for an attractive package. Whether this will be enough to draw audiences outside of festivals and LGBTQ-themed events is to be seen.
The fascination with the closed-book of the Roma lifestyle, fetishised for a while in various Gypsy Wedding series on UK television, seemed largely focused on the kitsch element. But while Echevarria’s film doesn’t stint on this – Carmen’s engagement outfit includes a pearl-encrusted crown and earrings the size of hubcaps – what’s more interesting is the way the film delves into the concepts of honour and respect, and the rabidly patriarchal structure which enforces it all.
The formal engagement ceremony between Carmen and the virtual stranger who is set to become her husband involves her father talking up her purity. She has never been outside alone, he boasts, and she doesn’t even own a cellphone. Neither assertion is correct, but the women of the community conspire to keep unpalatable truths from their menfolk for fear of rousing their ire. Lola’s father Paco (Borja Moreno) is also prone to outbursts of rage, largely triggered by the fact that his daughter is more preoccupied with her education than she is will meeting prospective husbands. Even without knowing the details of Lola’s secret life – she paints graffiti murals of birds and loiters on lesbian chat sites – her family have labelled her as ‘weird’.
Birds are a recurring image – in addition to Lola’s drawings, they dangle from Carmen’s earrings and suggest the possibility of taking wing and escaping the restrictions of being a gypsy woman. For a while, at least, Carmen and Lola find release in each other. But the police surveillance tower which looms over the community is a metaphor for the all-seeing eyes of the neighbourhood gossips. And any hint of impropriety results in a trial by rumours, and devastating shame for the family.
Although heady and often joyful in tone, the film ultimately makes clear the cost of a lesbian relationship in a culture which would rather lose a daughter than lose face.