A delicate symphony of love and sorrows, Isabel Coixet’s Elisa & Marcela (Elisa y Marcela) is a breathtaking work of historical fiction. It is difficult to find a lesbian relationship that is so whole and gently portrayed as well as it is in this film. Not to mention how rare it is to find a truthful depiction of lesbian history, especially one portrayed with such conviction. Despite the film’s flaws (namely a script that flatlines a bit too often), it gives me a great appreciation of the value and importance of telling lesbian stories, especially when they make our tucked away history visible. Elisa & Marcela tells the story of Marcela Gracias Ibeas (Greta Fernandez) and Elisa Sanchez Loriga (Natalia de Molina), two lesbians who got married in 1901—the first gay marriage recorded in Spain. Elisa took on the identity of Mario Sanchez so that a Catholic priest would marry her to Marcela. Their lengthy and love-filled marriage was never annulled, despite the knowledge of their true selves and relationship being outted not long after. As a lesbian, I’m ashamed to say that I had never heard this story before I caught wind of the film, which probably has something to do with the lack of discussion around lesbian history. It’s sad and a bit frustrating but we seem to be learning and building more of an understanding of our history through this and other historical fiction films and television shows.
Marcela is bright and eager, grasping at knowledge with sticky fingers. Elisa is somehow both a new and familiar soul as she tugs Marcela through the halls and tousles her rain-drenched hair. Their love is sweet at first (confessions whispered past nuns and hidden letters looping across book pages) but quickly turns into something passionate and whole. Together they vibrate with life and emotion; Their expressiveness is contagious and their adoration endearing. They are each other’s touchstones regardless of the time and distance between them. The miles that separate them—after Marcela’s father sends her away—only cement their desperate sort of need for each other; It’s a kind of love felt down to the bones. I see myself in Elisa, mostly in her silent and burning anger towards the lesbophobia she experiences. I get like that, so locked up in frustration and ire that I can’t do anything but let it bubble and froth inside of me until I end up in tears.
“This is real, isn’t it? It isn’t a dream?”
This film tore open my chest and cracked open my heart from inside. My heart rose softly as they splashed and danced through a stream in their underskirts and corset covers. I cried in a desperately familiar sort of way when Elisa was stoned in the woods and sobbed more when she sat stone-faced in Marcela’s arms as her lover pressed rags to her wounds as if she could coax out every bad thing they had ever suffered because of their love. Greta Fernandez is a sweet thing, a delightful actress who added so much depth and truth to the woman she portrayed. The perfectly complimentary Natalia de Molina is bright, sparks flickering behind her eyes. The authenticity of their performances matched with the strength of their supporting actors builds a lovely cast which is able to accomplish so much.
Although there are a few editing moments I found odd and perhaps a bit jarring, I adored how lyrically constructed the film was. The lingering shots on flowers, ocean tides, and church bells ringing felt like breaths. Each shot like a gap between moments of the film which we can imagine represent pieces of Elisa and Marcela’s lives together—a sinuous and graceful pace. The film is gorgeously shot courtesy of DP Jennifer Cox, and her tendency towards wide angles works in her favor here, displaying the enormity and width of Elisa and Marcela’s love for each other.
While I know a lot of critics labeled this film as unremarkable and failing in many respects, I cannot help but notice that almost every single one of them is male and obviously not a lesbian. In this, I ask this industry to amplify our voices and allow us to review and deconstruct films that are made for us in a way nonlesbians likely cannot understand. There are flaws in this film and I’m not ignorant enough to deny them, I notice them as anyone would, but I see so much of myself in these characters. This story happened more than a hundred years ago and I find it strangely (or not so strangely) relatable to the life I live and breathe right now as a lesbian. I find comfort and hope in these two indestructible women and their love. I find so much to value within this film, but most of all I dearly appreciate being able to experience this piece of our history. Most of all I love how elegantly this film portrays lesbian love as courageous, ever so tender, messy, and stunning (because it is). I am so glad this exists.
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Jenna Kalishman is a freelance writer and cinephile based in Colorado who often focuses on female and queer perspectives as well as female-led projects. She spends much of her free time listening to Stevie Nicks and re-watching Carol. You can find her on twitter @jenkalish.