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BERLINALE 2019 Competition

Review: Elisa & Marcela


- BERLIN 2019: Isabel Coixet's new feature is based on the real-life story of the first same-sex marriage in Spain

Review: Elisa & Marcela
Greta Fernández and Natalia de Molina in Elisa & Marcela

Yesterday, the Berlinale Palast hosted the world premiere of Isabel Coixet's new film, entitled Elisa & Marcela [+see also:
film profile
, which is screening in competition at this year's Berlin Film Festival. The Catalan director has a long-standing connection to the gathering: her first international hit, Things I Never Told You, was selected in the 1996 Panorama section, and since then, seven more films have featured in the programme over the years. 

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The script, penned by the director herself, is based on real events and revolves around the first same-sex marriage in Spain, recorded in 1901. After a brief prologue set in Argentina, the film follows Marcela and Elisa's first day in high school. Viewers will see how the deep friendship between the young women (played by Greta Fernández and Natalia de Molina) will soon evolve into a romantic relationship. Their passion is unquenchable, and even Marcela's suspicious parents, who eventually send her to a boarding school in Madrid, will not be able to put an end to their relationship. Three years later, Elisa and Marcela meet again and decide to start living together. Both work as primary-school teachers and struggle to keep their bond secret from the strict local Catholic community. For this reason, Elisa decides to pose as a man and marry Marcela; their ruse, however, is soon uncovered by the authorities and will lead them into trouble with the justice system. The couple will be forced to move to Portugal and, later, to Argentina.

Shot entirely in black and white, the film is a poetic love story between two women who are fighting against all odds. The performances by de Molina and Fernández are impressive, and their glances and pauses powerfully convey the feelings of the two lead characters and the intimacy between them. Sofia Oriana's score is also noteworthy: the few tracks played throughout the film are chosen perfectly and contribute to building up a picture of this forbidden love. During the closing credits, moreover, Portuguese singer Salvador Sobral sings “Nem Eu”, a delicate melody from the 1950s, accompanied by modern-day pictures of other same-sex marriages.

Nonetheless, the movie could have benefited from more thorough work on the script; in some parts, the tension is sorely lacking and the dialogue is rather dull. The feeling is that the story could have been condensed into a tighter form, perhaps making it 20 or 30 minutes shorter than the final 113-minute cut. Furthermore, some of the love scenes are overlong and a little over the top – particularly the one in which the pair are involved in some heavy petting and use an octopus, of all things, in their act of complicity. This scene is simply bizarre and does not add anything to the story’s development.

Finally, during the second half of the movie, we notice that there are a few instances of archive footage being intertwined with the live-action scenes. By doing so, the director was most likely trying to create an old-fashioned feel, but the execution of this idea does not work, and the footage seems out of place.

All in all, Elisa & Marcela is a film with considerable potential and relies heavily on the skilled performances of the two lead actresses; however, its choices in terms of staging and script could definitely have been more careful and intelligible.

Elisa & Marcela was produced by Joaquín Padró and Mar Targarona for Rodar y Rodar, José Carmona for La Nube Películas, and Zaza Ceballos for Legal Zenit TV. Its world sales are being handled by Barcelona-based firm Film Factory.

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