The place is Spain in the mid-nineteenth century, and this town has a tobacco factory situated in it where the maidens of the district, mostly Andalusians, roll cigars on their thighs for sale at expensive tobacconists' emporia. Today it is nearly the changing of the guard, and one of the soldiers Don José (Plácido Domingo) has a visitor, though she is not around to deliver her message from home when he is; the guards who are on duty suggest she hang around and wait for him, but she suspects their motives and makes her excuses, leaving in the crowd of the factory workers as they stream from the building...
And among those workers is a certain lady called Carmencita, or Carmen for short in this, one of the most famous operas, if not the most famous opera, of all time. Even if you've never sat through one such production before, Georges Bizet's celebrated efforts had filtered into the cultural consciousness as there were at least three or four pieces of music in this which many would recognise, whether they had seen the whole thing or not. Indeed, if you were a proud philistine you could ponder which television advertisements you had heard the tunes used in, parodies or otherwise. That wasn't on director Francesco Rosi's mind, however, as he was more intent on staying faithful to the source.
Not that this meant he was going to film some stagebound adaptation, for he was more interested in opening the drama out into the Spanish location, sunbaked regions which by the looks of it had barely altered at all since Bizet's day. This authenticity stretched to presenting an actual bullfight under the main titles, with another one nearer the climax, fair enough a bullfighter was an important character, but many's an opera lover who is also an animal lover who finds Rosi's dedication to realism rather disturbing if it meant we got to watch a beast be slaughtered for entertainment purposes, with less hardy souls preferring to close their eyes or if they were watching at home, fast forward those parts when the genuine gore began to flow.
Still, that was not a major part of the movie, as the main attraction was to hear both Plácido Domingo and Julia Megenes, in the title role, belt out the tunes, being as they were two of the finest exponents of these characters available in 1984, though Domingo was perhaps growing a little long in the tooth to play a young corporal, so a degree of suspension of disbelief was necessary. That said, you were watching a group of people singing their way almost constantly through their lives, so if you could take a musical then you could easily cope with an opera such as Carmen. Rosi, hitherto best known as one of Italy's most politically active filmmakers, this time around decided to keep things respectful to the period the material was written rather than update it with asides.
He did include the spoken bits between the singing, apparently a novelty should you be used to watching this in a theatre setting, but otherwise it was the music speaking for itself, performed with a gusto that was infectious, so stirring was Bizet's work. Plotwise, Don José meets his visitor who gives him a message from his dear old mother, but then he is distracted by Carmen who had gotten into a fight at the factory and now must be arrested. After holding her at the station, they get to chatting (well, they make melody together anyway) and before long are acting on a newfound attraction which will eventually prove their downfall when they go on the run. One move towards authenticity rendered this the hairiest Carmen you would likely see, with Megenes running her toes through Domingo's carpet of chest hair and the diva herself not only sporting a mane of curls on her head but under her arms as well. That shouldn't distract you from the opera, as the power of Bizet's artistry made this one of the most accessible of its kind, though Rosi's ideas of translation might not be everyone's.