A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Elisa & Marcela is a Spanish-language 2019 drama based on the true love story of two late 19th century women who battle the social stigma of their sexual orientation. The film strives to depict that their love is ordinary -- they even manage to get married -- but for the fact that society scorns and criminalizes them. A message at the end notes that gay marriage is illegal in 72 countries around the world today, and in some places homosexuality is still punishable by death. The two women are shown making love, in some scenes fully nude, making this a choice for mature audiences only, but language is limited to "hell" and "dyke." Note that it's implied that a woman has been raped. She later gives birth in prison. Villagers break the windows of the two women and throw things at them. A father slaps his daughter and later wrestles her to the ground. The man of the house lays down the law, bullying the wife and daughter. Some adults smoke cigarettes and cigars.
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What's the story?
ELISA & MARCELA (Natalia de Molina and Greta Fernandez) were two provincial Spanish women who met as girls at a convent school and immediately fell in love. Like most women of the time, their lives were controlled by men. Marcela's violent and controlling father wants his daughter to either marry quickly or live in a convent to prevent the shame that would come if she were to have sex outside of holy matrimony and possibly become pregnant. The desperation of controlling women's urges and whims is the undercurrent of the story as the father's concern and disapproval is echoed and magnified in a town's frenzied desire to put an end to Elisa and Marcela's relationship. The women, now teachers, live quietly in a village that slowly meddles more and more deeply into their lives. Elisa hatches a plan to "disappear," a plot that requires leaving Marcela alone and vulnerable to the rape (not shown) by a frustrated male suitor. Elisa returns as "Mario," in men's clothes with short hair and an absurdly drawn-on mustache, fooling no one but the priest who marries them. (The church, by the way, never officially undid their marriage.) Elisa and Marcela, now pregnant, escape their hostile town to Portugal, where they are arrested. "Mario" is stripped to prove that "he" is Elisa, and a kindly warden (Manolo Solo) persuades her to put on a dress and join Marcela in the women's prison, where she will be safe from certain sexual attack on the men's side. Marcela has the child there, and an outpouring of support wells up from citizens, especially women, of the Portuguese city and state. The governor plots with the warden to get the pair out without extraditing them to Spain, where further charges and a 20-year sentence await them.
Is it any good?
This movie builds a slow and steady narrative that is at times compelling and beautiful to look at, with echoes of the somber black-and-white elegance of Roma. The story takes a while to make sense, as a vague present-day scenario bookends the main story. What Elisa & Marcela does well is present the uncertainty of two young 1890s women who sense they are different but, without any role models, remain unsure anyone else is like them. The joy of their first sexual encounter, deferred for so long because of social taboos, is exhilarating and central to making their love for each other feel real and undeniable, something most audiences can relate to.
But modern-day sensibilities intrude. Their lovemaking has an expertise to it that echoes soft-core porn, not what you'd expect of two convent schoolgirls who presumably have never had sex before. Subsequent explicitly sexual scenes don't advance the story at all and have an almost voyeuristic quality, making a viewer wonder why we are invading their privacy. The movie never explains why the warden is so admiring of the couple and why he considers it a "privilege" to know them. Nor is any explanation offered as to why the population of an urban 1901 Portuguese center seems to want to support two sexually renegade women while Spanish authorities want to put them in prison for 20 years. Perhaps Portuguese society was the more liberal atmosphere at the time, but that's not articulated here.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the criminalization of gay sex. Do you think societies punish gays because male-female couples and production of children are the norm and sanctioned by religions, or because same-sex couples, especially with two females, challenge dominant male roles in many societies?
The movie focuses on two women who are in love and the support they seem to receive from other women once they leave their provincial village and venture to the big city. At the time, many women didn't have rights outside their marriages to men. Do you think some women applauded the couple because they were able to live independently from men? Why else might women have helped this couple?
Do you think human beings are afraid of those who are different? Why or why not?
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