It’s amazing how something as simple as a change of location or cultural backdrop can rejuvenate the most familiar narratives. Carmen & Lola (Carmen y Lola), the directorial debut of Arantxa Echevarria, reinvigorates a familiar coming out scenario by transporting it to the heart of Madrid’s Roma community, finding within it specific cultural issues that, sadly, allows for one of the oldest narratives within LGBT storytelling to maintain its relevancy. If you were to strip the film from this context, it wouldn’t appear to break any new ground; it shares a surprising amount of parallels with last year’s Kenyan romance Rafiki, which similarly premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and took up the spotlight due to the controversy surrounding its reception in its home country.
Watching Carmen & Lola (Carmen y Lola) prior to its showcase at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival only highlights how unfairly overlooked this was following its premiere. The story is familiar, and the ramifications of the forbidden love are as you would expect considering the devoutly religious milieu. But it’s told from a cultural perspective we rarely have a chance to see in pop culture, offering a unique angle on a familiar story that helped keep me invested throughout.
Lola (Zaira Romero) is 16 years old, and increasingly aware that her secret sexuality puts her at odds with the conservative community she’s being brought up in. Carmen (Rosy Rodriguez) is a couple of years older, and straining to fit in within the expectations her family have for her; she’s engaged to be married to Lola’s cousin, and when the two meet, Lola swiftly begins to develop intense feelings for her. At first, Carmen is repulsed – before realising that she’s been so forced into living within specific cultural guidelines, she’s not pursuing the life that she wants to. The two forge a (admittedly, very chaste) relationship, but one that generates rumours throughout the community that has repercussions for the pair and their families.
It’s a long while until homophobia rears its ugly head. The community is established as devout early on, but the lively sing-a-longs that predominate their church services do a great job of hiding any intolerance within. In fact, the very concept of homosexuality is so alien to the Roma community, queer things happen under their noses without any suspicion being raised – Carmen and Lola passionately dance at Carmen’s engagement party, and yet nobody in the room assumes this connotes anything deeper. After all, why would they? Not only are they devoutly religious, but they’re also largely separate from modern society in subtle ways. They live on the outskirts of a modern European capital city, yet many members still don’t have phones, so have been cut off from the wider world growing more accepting by technological disadvantage alone.
Aside from the insight into a community rarely featured on film, Carmen & Lola (Carmen y Lola) also benefits from two charming central performances. Romero’s turn as Lola is perfectly pitched, maintaining the balance of portraying someone who is shy and emotionally withdrawn for reasons beyond their control, and yet also unashamedly romantic, always making the first move despite a fear of being discovered for who she really is. Rosy Rodriguez’ performance could be summarised as the counterpoint – you buy her as a freewheeling, easy going soul, albeit one who turns to sudden bouts of unleashing an internalised homophobia when forced to confront feelings that compromise the adult life she and her family have all mapped out for themselves.
On a grander scale, the film also attempts to subvert audience preconceptions of the Roma community. The film isn’t entirely successful on this front, however, and does often feel like it isn’t being sufficiently damning of the homophobia of the elders. I suspect Echevarria was attempting to portray them as victims of their religious beliefs, so quick to lose the love of their family due to their wrongheaded stance on homosexuality – but the closing moments make it hard to sympathise with them, let alone justify such an even handed approach. It’s a commendable effort, but one that doesn’t entirely work, almost detracting from the simple charms of the central forbidden romance.
Carmen & Lola (Carmen y Lola) is a refreshing new take on a familiar tale of hidden sexuality and forbidden romance. It isn’t entirely flawless, but seeing this story transported to a culture rarely depicted in pop culture makes it worth seeking out regardless.