Elisa y Marcela is a passionate lesbian period drama. Telling the story of Spain’s first known same-sex marriage, the film follows the couple from their initial meeting to the beginning of a new life together. Over a hundred years before lesbians and gays could legally marry one another, Elisa Sánchez Loriga and Marcela Gracia Ibeas were wed in the Church of Saint George in A Coruña.
Even after they were discovered, the marriage was never annulled. And now this romance has been immortalized on the big screen.
From the opening shot until the closing scene, Elisa y Marcela is a highly watchable film. In a repressive school run by nuns, two girls make an instant connection. They share books, secrets, and hopes for the future. Elisa faces pressure to marry a man, even though she’d “rather do anything else” with her life. Marcela’s father stands in the way of her education, telling her not to get too involved in her books so that she can marry and get pregnant – in that specific order.
The delight Elisa and Marcela find in each other is unlike anything else they have ever experienced. Perhaps because of this, the relationship is treated with suspicion. But even after Marcela is bundled off to boarding school, their connection cannot be severed. Sexually charged letters serve as a placeholder for sharing space and time. And when Marcela returns to Elisa, the two pick things up as though she had never left.
Throughout the film, there is a persistent feeling of being watched. Nuns, neighbors, and even nosy children mean that Elisa and Marcela must constantly be on guard. That small-town curiosity isn’t just suffocating, but dangerous. This inescapable tension is compelling enough to keep viewers hooked even when the plot lags. To the rural community, they initially pass as young teachers living together to save money. But the true nature of Elisa and Marcela’s relationship soon becomes known – with devastating consequences.
In a last-ditch attempt to make their life together possible, Elisa assumes the identity of her cousin Mario after being sent word of his death. As Mario, she is baptized and married to Marcela in church. Though Elisa looks very dapper with her suits and short hair, it is impossible to forget that the intolerance of their community is the driving force behind this new look and identity. She tried to pass as a man in order to survive. Two women loving and living with each other was unacceptable not only the eyes of their neighbors but the church and the state.
Despite being shot in black and white, Elisa y Marcela doesn’t quite land as a historical drama. There is also a bit of historical inaccuracy. The word dyke only emerged as a slur in mid-20th century Harlem, a continent and several decades away from the lives of Elisa and Marcela.
And although it sounds more authentic in the original Spanish (the English dub detracts from much of the film’s charm), dialogue in Elisa y Marcela is, at points, a little hammy. But it is no more overwrought than the average Nicholas Sparks movie, in which white heterosexuals living in North America are kept apart through a series of contrived circumstances.
Still, what the script lacks in polish is more than compensated by the film’s abundance of perfectly framed panoramic shots. The drama is made all the more compelling by the taut silences disrupted only by the sound of rainfall or the wind rustling through leaves on trees.
Written and directed by Isabel Coixet, this is a lesbian film entirely unfettered by the male gaze. Just as Elisa and Marcela live outside of the heterocentric social constraints maintained by their community, Coixet tells their story outside of the traditionally straight structuring of mainstream romance flicks. Although explicit, the sex scenes are never gratuitous. Love and desire are communicated through a hundred small intimacies. Elisa y Marcela is a beautiful depiction of lesbian sexuality. This film not only remembers a trailblazing lesbian couple, but demonstrates the power of storytelling beyond heterocentric conventions.