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Guy Lodge

Ten years after “U-Carmen eKhayelitsha,” the Isango Ensemble’s vibrant South African spin on Georges Bizet, triumphed at the Berlinale, their return to the classic opera canon is a more muted affair all around. Revisiting the impoverished Cape Flats, “Breathe Umphefumlo” smartly situates Puccini’s “La Boheme” in the context of the country’s still-raging tuberculosis pandemic, but can’t quite make it sing: Over-compression of the source material and lackluster visual treatment contribute to the pic’s unexpectedly soft emotional impact. Such shortcomings don’t mask the keen collective talent of the Ensemble, shepherded once more by director Mark Dornford-May, but “Breathe” will find less oxygen than its predecessor on the international arthouse circuit.

It’s not surprising to see Dornford-May’s team returning to the opera house for inspiration after 2006’s “Son of Man” — a brave, abrasive Africanization of the gospel — found little traction beyond the festival circuit. Comparatively few risks are taken in “Breathe Umphefumlo” (the latter word translates as “spirit”), which doesn’t milk much of “U-Carmen’s” spiky sociopolitical resonance from its contempo setting; instead, from its introductory title cards serving up statistics on global TB infection rates both globally and within the township of Khayelitsha, the film has the stiffly co ...

Ten years after “U-Carmen eKhayelitsha,” the Isango Ensemble’s vibrant South African spin on Georges Bizet, triumphed at the Berlinale, their return to the classic opera canon is a more muted affair all around. Revisiting the impoverished Cape Flats, “Breathe Umphefumlo” smartly situates Puccini’s “La Boheme” in the context of the country’s still-raging tuberculosis pandemic, but can’t quite make it sing: Over-compression of the source material and lackluster visual treatment contribute to the pic’s unexpectedly soft emotional impact. Such shortcomings don’t mask the keen collective talent of the Ensemble, shepherded once more by director Mark Dornford-May, but “Breathe” will find less oxygen than its predecessor on the international arthouse circuit.

It’s not surprising to see Dornford-May’s team returning to the opera house for inspiration after 2006’s “Son of Man” — a brave, abrasive Africanization of the gospel — found little traction beyond the festival circuit. Comparatively few risks are taken in “Breathe Umphefumlo” (the latter word translates as “spirit”), which doesn’t milk much of “U-Carmen’s” spiky sociopolitical resonance from its contempo setting; instead, from its introductory title cards serving up statistics on global TB infection rates both globally and within the township of Khayelitsha, the film has the stiffly commendable air of an extended public service announcement. Furthermore, with the 1996 Broadway smash “Rent” already having made over “La Boheme” to address a modern health crisis — the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which could have been covered with no less local relevance by “Breathe” — Dornford-May’s film isn’t an especially radical application of Puccini’s work.

Instead of the original’s Christmastime setting — not a time when anyone in the Southern Hemisphere state is likely to be singing “Your little hand is frozen” — Dornford-May and co-scripter Pauline Malefane (also the Ensemble’s most established player) have sensibly turned a few pages in the calendar, opening proceedings on the midwinter date of June 16. It’s not just a climatically appropriate switch, but a historically astute one: Now named Youth Day, the public holiday marks the anniversary of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, in which black students railed against the oppressive measures of the apartheid-era education system. It might have been more thematically on point to relocate the action to the Johannesburg township of Soweto, though it’s understandable why the Cape Town-based, Xhosa-speaking company preferred to keep things closer to home.

Puccini’s bohemian Latin Quarter has been reconstructed as a destitute residence of bright university students in a range of humanitarian disciplines, where routine electricity outages do little to dim their idealism. The film’s rather clunky opening introduces the key players with blunt cutaways to their respective academic triumphs, driving home the point that, nearly 40 years on from the Soweto fallout, the national education system no longer discriminates by color. Journalism student and aspiring poet Lungelo (Mhlekazi Mosiea) is our Rodolfo, a scrappy upstart with dreams bigger than the freezing, cannabis-scented studio he shares with three other men; when he sets eyes on gifted, consumptive art student Mimi (Busisiwe Ngejane), however, his individual ambitions take a backseat.

Though the original narrative has been quite drastically condensed to fit a 92-minute frame — stringent brevity that feels unnecessary, given how “U-Carmen” pulsated at a healthy two hours — the pic’s opening act feels particularly static, spending too much time on a student-organized Youth Day party that serves principally to introduce Musetta proxy Zoleka (Malefane), here a renowned jazz singer, to the proceedings. Her romantic deliberations between pure-hearted painter Mandisi (Sifiso Lupuzi) and corrupt politician Ayanda (Zamile Gantana) never come into dramatic focus, though they are a persistent distraction from the core relationship between Lungelo and the dying Mimi. The latter progresses so swiftly as to obstruct viewers’ emotional investment: It seems the star-crossed lovers have hardly met before they start glumly reflecting on the good times they’ve had.

The Xhosa-language libretto, while neatly tailored to the original, doesn’t always support the opera’s sheer scale of feeling — “It’s Youth Day and we are young” is a typically literal lyric — though this sonically complex language does lose a certain regional flavor in the subtitling process. Malefane and fellow musical director Mandisi Dyantyis commit wholeheartedly to a more indigenous arrangement of Puccini’s existing score, though the proliferation of steel drums underscoring these soaring arias won’t be to all tastes. Malefane, so dynamic in the title role of “U-Carmen,” is once more the standout vocal contributor: Her honeyed jazz rendition of “Musetta’s Waltz” is the film’s most startling musical moment. Her younger cohorts all acquit themselves with impassioned aplomb: Even with her simplified character arc, Ngejani is a suitably radiant, bell-clear Mimi.

In the name of authenticity, one presumes, there’s little attempt at basic choreography, though the rattling urban energy of the locale doesn’t come across either. Like Matthys Mocke’s HD lensing, however, Dornford-May’s scene staging gains urgency when the film shifts to exterior location shooting — at least allowing us to see the broken rooftops from which these defiant New South Africans are shouting (or singing) their presence.

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