Mark Dornford-May won Berlin’s Golden Bear in 2005 for U-Carmen, his adaptation of Bizet’s opera. He obviously hopes for similar success with his latest venture, Breathe Umphefumlo (2015), which transports Puccini’s opera La Boheme from 19th century Paris to a modern-day township in South Africa. Lungelo (Mhlekazi Mosiea) meets Mimi (Busisiwe Ngejane) at university. She’s a botany student while he’s an aspiring poet and studying to be a journalist. They meet on campus in mid-summer. The students are engaged in preparations for the public holiday commemorating the 16 June massacre of Soweto schoolchildren in 1976. A concert is planned and singer Zoleka (Pauline Malefane) is due to appear.
After Lungelo and his friends are involved in a brawl during the celebrations they are thrown out of university and find themselves back on the streets; jobless, penniless and with no career prospects. Although Mimi is suffering from TB (a common illness in many areas of Cape Town), her love for Lungelo blossoms. There is no work and they live in poverty but they still find time to go for walks together and pick flowers to sell. Hardship takes its toll, however, and gradually Mimi’s condition worsens until the couple are forced to face the inevitable. Admittedly, there is a lack of emotional and psychological complexity in Lungela and Mimi’s passion for one another – they meet in their university halls of residence and are immediately smitten – but then that is true of Puccini’s original story.
Any flaws in the script are more than compensated for by Malefane and Mandisi Dyantis’ assured musical direction. Mosiea and Ngejane have exceptional voices and the musical standards are superb. Dornford-May uses the acclaimed company Isango Ensemble, who sing in the Xhosa language, and a background of marimbas and steel pans is interwoven into the opera. The end result is simply stunning. It’s an inspired choice to reimagine Puccini’s opera in Khayelitsha, a township where living standards today are probably on a par with those of the poor in 19th century Paris. South Africa currently has the highest TB incidence in the world and more than 50,000 people die from tuberculosis every year. Breathe Umphefumlo is also beautifully shot. Matthys Mocke’s camerawork perfectly contrasts the austere, clinical beauty of the university with the chaos of life outside in the township. This is a courageous and imaginative retelling of a classic tale that is both poignant and entertaining.
The 65th Berlin Film Festival takes place from 5-15 February 2015. For more of our coverage, simply follow this link.