‘Breathe Umphefumlo’: Berlin Review

Breathe Umphefumlo
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Laced with affecting moments but more admirable in intent than execution

After overhauling 'Carmen' in modern-day South Africa, director Mark Dornford-May turns to another classic opera with this reinvention of Puccini's 'La Boheme.'

Mark Dornford-May won the Berlinale's Golden Bear in 2005 with U-Carmen Ekhayelitsha, an imaginative adaptation of Bizet's opera, relocated to a South African shantytown and given a fresh shot of dramatic urgency via its post-apartheid portrait of a strong-willed woman who would rather die than submit to patriarchal oppression. But inspiration doesn't strike twice in Breathe Umphefumlo, an underpowered update of Puccini's La Boheme that finds tragic currency in the country's ongoing scourge of tuberculosis infection while only intermittently accessing the pathos of the original.

The film opens with the alarming statistic of two million global deaths last year from TB, with the Cape Town district of Khayelitsha numbering among the highest affliction rates in the world. While La Boheme begins at Christmas, Dornford-May and co-screenwriter Pauline Malefane (who starred in U-Carmen and appears here as the Musetta character, Zoleka) shift the action to June 16, the midwinter Youth Day anniversary commemorating the massacre of schoolchildren in the 1976 Soweto uprising.

The setup is promising, and the scenes in which the director and cinematographer Matthys Mocke linger outside the narrative confines of the opera with documentary-style coverage of the township are among the most interesting parts. While it verges on cutesy, the introduction of the core group of bohemian college students also works, identifying each of them with their academic pursuits as well as their more fanciful dream vocations.

The romantic hero is Rodolfo stand-in Lungelo (Mhlekazi "Wha Wha" Mosiea), who's studying for a BA in journalism but in his mind is a poet and soccer star. He shares an unheated "garret" with painter Mandisi (Sifiso Lupuzi), who sees himself as a sex-god revolutionary; ganja-loving philosopher Xolile (Luvo Rasemeni); and flamboyant post-grad drama student Sizwe (Zebulon Katlego Mmusi), who provides food, booze and weed by skimming cash off ticket sales for a holiday concert at the university. Jazz vocalist Zoleka is the headline act.

So far so good, even with the intrusion of some goofy comedy. But the characters are not drawn with sufficient distinctiveness to compensate for the musically under-nourished treatment. There's novelty value in hearing Puccini's lush orchestral score performed on marimbas, kettle drums and other percussion instruments, not to mention sung in the Xhosa language punctuated by dental clicks. However, that soon wears off. And while the libretto has been radically condensed, some of the more long-winded passages have been conserved to exasperating effect.

One of those is Lungelo's encounter in the student-housing block during an electricity outage with Mimi (Busisiwe Ngejane), who's already coughing when she asks him to light her candle and help find her keys. No sooner has he touched her gelida manina than the two are deeply in love. While the fiery dramatics of Carmen were a good fit for transposition, the soaring melodrama of La Boheme proves more resistant to a naturalistic contemporary setting. The midsection plotting also becomes muddy, particularly the transgressions that get the group thrown out of college, and the handling of Zoleka's bouncing between her fat-cat politician lover (Zamile Gantana) and Mandisi, the former flame that still burns.

The film grows somewhat more involving as they move to shantytown digs and scrape together a living selling wild lilies or washing cars, while consumptive Mimi's condition steadily worsens. Her death, one of the most plangent scenes in the lyric repertoire, is inevitably moving, particularly as its shattering impact on the other characters is shown. This presentation can't match the wrenching emotion of a traditional Boheme sung by full-throated, first-rate vocalists, but the film benefits from keeping the focus tight during the tragic conclusion, before once again pulling back to contextualize the story in an environment where hardship, loss and sorrow are no strangers.

Like U-Carmen and other reinterpreted operas, this project began in the theater with the Isango Ensemble company, of which Dornford-May is co-founder and artistic director. It's likely that both the story and the music had more enveloping power onstage, though that feels diluted here, despite the unquestionable conviction of the entire cast. And visually, the bare-bones production has little style to speak of. While the impulse behind the cultural makeover of this material is a laudable one, in the end, watered-down, unevenly sung Puccini is exactly that.

Production companies: Advantage Entertainment, Isango Ensemble

Cast: Pauline Malefane, Mhlekazi Wha Wha Mosiea, Busisiwe Ngejane, Sifiso Lupuzi, Luvo Rasemeni, Zebulon Katlego Mmusi, Ayanda Eleki, Zamile Gantana

Director: Mark Dornford-May

Screenwriters: Mark Dornford-May, Pauline Malefane, inspired by Puccini’s ‘La Boheme’

Producers: Vlokkie Gordon, Mark Dornford-May

Executive producers: Jan Du Plessis, Mike Downey, Sam Taylor

Director of photography: Matthys Mocke

Production designer: Birrie Le Roux

Costume designer: Jo Katsaras

Music: Klaus Badelt

Editor: Tanja Hagen

Music directors: Mandisi Dyantyis, Pauline Malefane

Sales: Fortissimo Films

No rating, 88 minutes.