★★★★☆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.
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.