Reviewed by Luis Fernando Reyes Diaz
When my younger brother Raul invited me to join “The Nerd Corps” as a writer for their website, I was delighted to do so. Hell, I love to write. I might not be great at it, but I really do enjoy it. However, when he asked me to review a foreign film from Netflix, I was a bit disappointed because I really wanted to write about “BoJack Horseman”. Once again, life has denied me yet another chance happiness, or so it seems. Oh well, perhaps one day I’ll get to write a review of “BoJack”. Perhaps, one day.
Anyway, I ended up deciding to watch “Elisa & Marcela” (2019), a black-and-white film about the romance of two young women. Set in turn of the twentieth-century northwest Spain, the movie’s plot intrigued me a lot. Having been raised by the public education system in Texas, I was taught that lesbians didn’t come into existence until the 1990s when Ellen DeGeneres invented them. Seeing as the film is based on “true events”, you can only imagine how confused I was. As the film started, I wondered if Isabel Coixet’s movie would be a master class in historical revisionism.
The film begins in Argentina in 1925. Initially, we follow a young woman who seeks out an older woman outside of Buenos Aires. The older woman begins to recount her life in turn of the century Galicia.
Our titular characters Marcela (Greta Fernández) and Elisa (Natalia de Molina) meet when the former starts attending the latter’s school. They immediately fall in love with one another, but can’t find a way to express it because they’re growing up in a time period in Spain’s history when everything is in black and white. Did I already mention that this film was shot in black-and-white? Ooops! Moreover, just in case you didn’t get the hint that this a historical film, Coixet reminds you how conservative Spain was in the past when Marcela’s father sends her off to a school in Madrid after he starts sensing that his daughter is becoming a feminist and that she also might be a lesbian.
A couple of years later, Elisa reunites with Marcela, who’s now a teacher in Galicia. Elisa moves in with Marcela, permitting themselves to be intimate with one another, both emotionally and physically. Unfortunately, their happiness doesn’t last long because the town’s people aren’t ready to be woke. Their anger and disgust towards the couple eventually causes Elisa to migrate supposedly to Cuba. Fortunately, before leaving, Marcela learned that her English cousin Mario has recently drowned. In what has to be the most unbelievable attempt at tackling the subject of “passing” ever filmed, Elisa returns to town, pretending to be Mario.
Mario convinces a local priest that he really, really wants to marry his cousin. The priest, who’s clearly blinder than I am (and I’m legally blind), happily agrees to wed Mario and Marclea. Unlike the priest, the villagers are not gullible enough to fall for the trick. Fearing for their safety, Elisa and Marcela flee to Porto, Spain Lite–“Portugal” as it’s officially known–where they try to raise money to immigrate to Argentina. Oh, I almost forgot to mention that Marcela is pregnant during all of this. My bad! Honestly, I forgot to mention that because the way that this film deals with Marcela getting pregnant is the best example of lazy plot development that I’ve seen in a while. In fact, for a couple of minutes I thought that Marcela and Elisa were faking the pregnancy as badly as Elisa is trying to pass as Mario.
The authorities in Porto eventually discover that Mario is actually a woman and that they’re dealing with the same-sex couple that the police in Spain are trying to apprehend. While in prison, Marcela gives birth to a baby girl. Things aren’t looking good, but fortunately the mayor of Porto and his wife become friends with our protagonist. Unlike almost everyone else whom Elisa and Marcela interact with, the mayor and his wife are really kind people. In fact, the mayor is so unwilling to hand Elisa and Marcela over to the Spanish that he makes it possible for them to escape to Argentina. But before they can make their escape, Marcela decides to leave her daughter behind with the mayor and his wife. Spoiler alert warning! It turns out that Marcela’s daughter is the young woman whom we meet at the film’s beginning.
At the risk of sounding like “a hater”–as the youth nowadays call a critic–”Elisa & Marcela” could’ve used another round of revisions. It has a powerful story to tell. For crying out loud, Elisa and Marcela’s marriage is the first recorded same-sex marriage in Spanish history! But in Coixet’s hands, the importance of this historical moment is lost in the film’s lackluster plot and scenery. And while I certainly would recommend watching this film, especially for those of you who like to discuss foreign films with your Tinder dates, I can’t help but give it a B-. In other words, it’s watchable.