Over a century before Spain finally legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, two women called Marcela Gracia Ibeas and Elisa Sánchez Loriga beat the odds and were married under the eyes of God in 1901. Isabel Coixet’s latest drama brings the couple’s story to life in the Berlinale competition title Elisa y Marcela, charting the development of their relationship while taking a few liberties with their story along the way.
After they first met at school in 1898, Elisa (Natalia de Molina) and Marcela (Greta Fernandez) immediately become obsessed with each other, finding a safe haven in a love that holds strong against the oppressive religious atmosphere of Galicia in Northeastern Spain. Even when Marcela’s parents intervene and send her away to a boarding school in Madrid for three years, the pair simply pick up where they left off once they’re reunited.
Things take an even more surprising turn when Elisa decides to fight back against the prejudice of their village by reinventing herself as a man called Mario. By crossdressing with this new identity, she and Marcela convince a local priest to officially wed them together, but as you might expect, their matrimonial bliss is soon cut short by the interfering townsfolk.
For this outlandish and yet true story to work, a lot is riding on the two leads. Fortunately, Natalia and Greta immediately convince with the kind of chemistry rarely seen in modern day cinema. Together, the passion their characters share is explosive, infusing each of their love scenes with a primal urgency that feels more real than most Hollywood romances. Never obscene for the sake of it, it’s clear that Elisa y Marcela was shot by a female director for a female audience. There’s no male gaze in sight here and rightly so.
Given the time period in which this story is set, it should come as no surprise that Coixet would wish to reflect this era visually on screen with authenticity, but she also adds some unexpected flourishes such as the “iris out” transitions which hearken back to silent cinema.
While some critics have denounced the playful nature of these moments by claiming that they’re incongruous with the story at large, it seems to me that Coixet is deliberately tapping into the Hollywood melodrama of old through these techniques. Combined with the sumptuous black and white cinematography, Elisa y Marcela is a gorgeous homage to the early 1900s and whether you enjoy the story or not, it’s easily one of the best looking films that competed at the Berlinale this year.
However, the red carpet premiere was met with some resistance by local cinema owners who protested against it screening in the competition because it’s a Netflix title. In this regard, Elisa y Marcela is much like Roma, another black and white Spanish language movie that distributors rallied against at Venice.
In Roma’s case, most were soon won over and the film is now enjoying a well deserved winning streak on the awards circuit right now. While we doubt that Elisa y Marcela will make the same impact when it hits the streaming service later this year, we’re sure that LGBTQ audiences will still find much to love here and no, we’re not just talking about that octopus sex scene either!