It’s been many years since writer-director Sarah Polley launched a fictional feature film. Her debut feature, ‘Far from her’, nominated her in the category for best adapted screenplay at the 2007 Oscars and it is now ‘They speak’, the adaptation of the novel by Miriam Toews, which has ensured the only gap for a woman in the categories for best film and best adapted screenplay in the Oscar 2023 nominations.
It’s 2010 in a Mennonite community cut off from the world. For years, women and girls have been drugged and raped by the men of the congregation: they are their neighbors, uncles, brothers, cousins and fathers. She wakes up lethargic and bruised, or in some cases pregnant, but when they raised their concerns they were told that she had been the product of Satan, or God, or a “act of female imagination”. When it is discovered that it was indeed the men, they are all sent to jail, but will soon be back on bail. The women have less than two days to decide what they will do before they return. Eight women from three different generations come together to make a decision on behalf of all: they can stay, fight, whatever that means, or leave (not run away)..
Of very different opinions, Women are united by one thing: their faith, with which they want to reconcile when they feel abandoned and forced to take their future into their own hands.. Some advocate forgiving and keeping quiet, as always encouraged by the Christian faith and pacifism, while others plan to do everything necessary to protect their daughters, willing to respond to violence with violence. Those who remain consider it better to leave, leaving their home forever, fearing that God will not find them if they leave. They compare their situation with the only thing they know, which for some is nothing more than what their pets, those animals, have taught them. “who are safer in their homes” than themselves.
A current debate
‘Ellas hablan’ exudes timelessness. From his courageous commitment to the direction of photography, between veiled and overexposed, which causes the story to seem like a fragment frozen in time, an analogue barely revealed, as if by the customs of the community he follows, which in its isolation and modesty simulates a period portrait. However, the conflicts that she reveals are still valid in our society. The trilemma facing women in the religious community is essentially the same as any battered woman: stay, fight or leave.. In addition, women face the oppressive structure of religious orders and the gaslighting of victims (“It’s worse that they don’t believe you”).
Polley, based on Toews’s novel, advocates a progress that liberates women, but that will also liberate men: aren’t we all victims of patriarchy? However, he manages not to fall into the “poor thing, they don’t know what they’re doing” and dares to pose the most difficult questions about true forgiveness and the origin of the aggressions, which is not the sex of a person, but their position of can. Similarly, it addresses the most basic and complex question of all: why do we fight and what does it mean to win? However, although the debate transcends time, the arguments do not really seem to have germinated in the year 2010 (feminism has changed a lot in the last ten years), much less in an illiterate sector of an isolated community. While women do not know feminism by name, what they are looking for in the name of peace and freedom, the story makes it clear that the screenwriter does, with a script where there is no shortage of conventions, too beautiful and with too modern judgments.
On the other hand, what it loses in the plausibility of the setting it gains in its way of narrating it. There is a general problem in films that deal with violence, especially that exerted on women: the vision of the camera tends towards voyeurism and a sadism that delights at the same time as the look of the aggressor, the male gaze more harmful. This occurs in rape scenes that look like pornographic films or in Hellenistic portraits of the victims, which can’t help but wonder if the visual narrative isn’t contradicting the script’s message. In ‘Ellas hablan’, Polley attempts against this: in the same way that Pilar Palomero detached ‘La maternal’ from all possible morbidity, the Canadian director and screenwriter is clear about the story she wants to tell. He is not interested in showing violations or beatings, but the consequences of them: for that he shows the blood, the bruises and the wounds and leaves the rest of the work to be built by the eight tremendous actresses under his direction. And boy do they.
Sarah Polley chooses the actresses Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley and Frances McDormand, four emblems of the creation of complex female characters, to lead the cast, accompanied by Sheila McCarthy, Judith Ivey, Michelle McLeod, Kate Hallett and Liv McNeil in an excellent casting choice. Among all of them, Claire Foy’s Salome stands out especially, with her outbursts and restraints, as well as the impressive film debut of the young Kate Hallett, who will undoubtedly give people talk in the future. She also highlights the character of August, the only adult man left in the colony, in charge of writing the minutes of the meeting. Again, Polley is clear about the story he wants to tell and who should tell itthus dethroning him from the role of narrator he exercises in the novel and allowing Ben Whishaw to show the essential counterweight of a man who unleashes vulnerability and love, aware of the responsibility he has.
In addition to the great choice in the main cast, Polley makes two big bets when it comes to promoting visibility and inclusion: he hires Shayla Brown, a young actress with a visual disability, to play a character with the same characteristics and a truly trans performer, such as August Winter, to make melvin. However, the latter is not given the necessary space to develop what could have been the most beautiful character in the film, but his story is rushed and he is exempted from the contradiction that is endowed with the rest of the characters. , escaping thanks to the consistency of his acts of seeming a forced and archetypal inclusion of a trans character in the Mennonite community.
Despite the fact that Sarah Polley tries to balance costumbrist comedy and tear-jerking drama, the hints of laughter, sometimes ideal and other embedded, accumulate at the beginning and leave the last half hour, making the end drowsy, where the most dramatic moments accumulate, which they leave behind, but always from hope. Because if there is something truly innovative in a feminist story today, it is its positivist approach.and ‘Ellas hablan’ is a claim that it is precisely this “act of female imagination” that allows us to take a leap of faith in the possibility of a better future, even if it is hard to imagine.
The best: Claire Foy, Ben Whishaw and a debate where all the corners of feminism and patriarchy are raised and discussed.
Worst: The implausibility of the dialectic in an isolated and illiterate community of women.