Opera Meets Film: How Zoe Saldana’s ‘Colombiana’ Uses Opera to Express Cataleya’s Struggle With a World of Toxic Masculinity

By David Salazar

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a film section or a film in its entirety and highlight the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features the Zoe Saldana-starrer “Colombiana.”

In “Colombiana,” Cataleya starts off the story as a defenseless young girl parkouring from the Colombian cartel. Eventually, she finds a safe haven with her uncle, transforming into a vengeful assassin on a mission to exact revenge on those who murdered her parents.

As the story develops, the 2011 film moves beyond an examination of a revenge plot and turns into something far more topical – the story of a woman trying to escape the confines of a male-dominated world. Everywhere Cataleya turns, she is met by men trying to tie her down in some way or another. Whether it be the cartel, or the FBI, or even her on-and-off romantic fling Danny, Cataleya is constantly running from men who prove to be dangerous for her in more ways than one. In one of the strangest scenes in the film, Danny meets with a male friend and talks about his new crush. This friend then steals Danny’s phone and has a background check done on her. That inevitably leads to more problems for her, including a tragic development that will scar her for life.

With some exceptions, she’s pretty much the only woman in the entire film. That fact is particularly notable because the expressions of the female voice are minimal and when they crop up, are often symbolic of this very oppression. Enter the operatic excerpts.

Opera doesn’t feature heavily in the film, but two notable passages crop up at distinct moments in the film and they highlight Cataleya’s travails throughout the film. The first of these comes right at the start of the film, where after a title card signals that we are heading to Colombia in 1992, we are introduced to Don Luis’ ranch, Schubert’s iconic “Ave Maria” playing in the background.

The iconic passage is one associated with religious fervor, which is undeniably at odds with the imagery of the drug cartel. What’s more – we learn that Don Luis is actually listening to the music himself. On one hand, one could argue that this is simply a propagation of the cliché featuring villains listening to classical music (something particularly notable in Latin American telenovelas of the 1990s and early 2000s), but the dissonance here works on a couple of other levels. For one, it’s the lone voice of a woman trapped within the confines of a male-dominated world; the voice of a woman praying to the ultimate symbol of purity. At this point in the story, Cataleya is but an innocent young girl; her life has not been destroyed yet.

Later in the story, we return to Don Luis’ ranch to reintroduce the character. Director Olivier Megaton opts for an operatic excerpt as a means of linking back to Don Luis’ initial introduction. But this time we hear “Un bel dì vedremo” from “Madama Butterfly.” Again, a lone female voice trapped in the world of men. At this point in the story, Cataleya is a full-borne assassin taking on the world of men. Gone is the purity of the “Ave Maria,” replaced by the longing for the fulfillment of Cio Cio San’s iconic aria. For Puccini’s tortured heroine, the longing is for the return of Pinkerton; for Cataleya, it’s revenge for her parents’ death.

It can’t be ignored that both of them ultimately get what they want – but it comes at a cost. Pinkerton returns to Cio Cio San, but she finds out she can never be with him. He lied to her. He’s already married. And what’s worse, he’s coming for her son. Cataleya gets her revenge, but like Cio Cio San, her oppressor comes for those she loves the most. At the low point of her narrative, she arrives home to find her uncle and the rest of their family dead in his home. While she doesn’t succumb to Cio Cio San’s fate at the close of the film, she doesn’t get a happy ending either. She remains a fugitive. She can’t ever settle down into a normal life. She will never have peace. And more importantly, without her family (like Cio Cio San), she will now be alone in her latest struggle with a world that, while having less toxic men in it, is still full of them.

(Also worthy of note and adding to the impact of the brief excerpts by Schubert and Puccini – with one other exception, “The Fade Out Line” which features Phoebe Tolmer, the overall soundtrack for “Colombiana” is dominated by male voices throughout). 


Opera Meets Film