Carmen & Lola (Carmen y Lola)

Spain (2018) Dir. Arantxa Echevarría

“Is feeling love a sin?”

Being a minority is always a struggle; some people have what might be considered the misfortune of being a minority within a minority. Maybe being in love will help ease the hardship, but even in that regard, here are few guarantees when growing up in a strict traditionalist household.

17 year-old Carmen (Rosy Rodríguez) is of Romani descent, living in the suburbs of Madrid. Per the traditions of her culture, Carmen is to be engaged to a local boy Rafa (Juan José Jiménez) as arranged by their parents, then get married and have a family. Instead, Carmen wants to be a hairdresser but daren’t oppose her parents. Meanwhile, Rafa’s cousin, 16-year old Lola (Zaira Romero), also has different ideas from those of her parents but is more defiant about it.

Wanting to be a teacher, Lola goes to school but her father Paco (Moreno Borja) says she should toe the line, stay working at the family stall, and get married like every other good Gypsy girl. One day at the stall, Lola and Carmen meet and hit it off, enjoying each other’s company until Lola comes out, and Carmen angrily rejects her. But then they reconcile and begin a journey of forbidden passion.

Representation of the LGBTQ community in cinema and indeed its own niche subgenre is currently at an all time high, yet there is still something quite sad about the fact so many of these films and stories are about the struggles gay people face on a daily basis. Carmen & Lola is a film that straddles this line, partly exploring the usual social setbacks but also celebrating the liberation found in a Sapphic relationship.

Arantxa Echevarría delivers an uncomfortable expose into what is a seemingly common mindset towards homosexuality when it comes to religious communities, turning her sights on the Gypsy sector. As alluded to earlier, this is a group of people who endure daily prejudice from the “whiteys” and you would think they would know better than to partake in discrimination but the doctrines of their faith instructs them otherwise.

Prior to this, the story is a slow burn look at two headstrong teenage girls rejecting the archaic and stringent mores of their culture to live the life they want to under their own terms. How much of this is an accurate portrayal of the Gypsy community I can’t say as Echevarría doesn’t paint a flattering picture of them (although they are not alone) but what she shares is insightful.

Carmen is the more brash and confident of the two, knowing she is an attractive, trendy young girl that can turns heads and milks it for all it is worth. She goes along with the engagement idea, partly because she was seeing Rafa on the quiet; her father is so strict he believes his little girl never goes out unaccompanied, nor does he know she has a mobile phone. Doesn’t explain her tattoos and piercings though…

Lola is quieter but confident in a different way. She isn’t afraid to stand up to her father and fortunately, her mother Flor (Rafaela León) is on her side about letting Lola attend school to better herself. Flor is illiterate and Paco isn’t much more advanced in that area, but he puts food on the table and clothes on their backs, so being able to read and write is sufficient for him and his family to earn a living in this world.

The central relationship takes a while to establish itself, starting off as friendship via the mutual need to escape their families. Carmen shows no signs of being into women whilst Lola is limited to using an internet café to look the subject up and connecting with other gays via chat groups. One funny scene comes when Lola puts “Lesbian Madrid” into Google and gets a porn video she can’t shut down!

Fully infatuated with Carmen and thinking she feels the same, Lola, also a skilled graffiti artist, paints a huge heart mural on a wall opposite Carmen’s bedroom. Unfortunately, she and everyone else think Rafa did it; when the truth comes out, Carmen angrily tells Lola people like her make her sick. Carmen, seemingly recognising her true sexuality, realises Lola means more to her than Rafa, and seeks reconciliation.

Unfortunately, the result sees both girls incur the wrath of their parents – Carmen for costing them money over the cancelled marriage, and Lola for committing the sin of loving another girl. The fall out for Lola is harrowing; the sheer rage Paco as he drags her to church so the pastor can cleanse her is terrifying, whilst a tearful Flor begs Lola to say it isn’t true is palpably devastating and tragically naïve through being directed by religious instruction.

Echevarría pulls no punches in depicting engrained homophobia as tangible in its toxicity as the ultimate sin, yet doesn’t frame this as an attack on religion. When the pastor tries to justify Lola’s sinful love as akin to paedophilia, it is difficult not to shake your head in incredulity, but this would appear to be Echevarría pointing out the sad reality these attitudes and beliefs remain in modern life.

It has to be said, this isn’t a raunchy or graphic film, with no nudity or pandering to the male gaze. Any interactions are tender, gentle, sensuous but never sensual, serving to symbolise two people happy in their own world and a love that is pure in its own way. Most of the cast are non-professionals or first timers, and turn in genuine and nuanced performances, although Rosy Rodríguez, 19 at the time, looks about 30 when heavily made up.

Carmen & Lola’s naturalistic vérité mise-en-scene courtesy of Echevarría’s background in documentary adds a sense of realism to this oft-told tale of gay love in a strict religious environment. A topical and vital film to appeal to all audiences that wears its heart and empathy on its sleeve.

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