A Biopic of “La Veneno”

In the realm of captivating biopics, one production that stands out is Veneno (Atresplayer Premium, 2020), a portrayal of Cristina Ortiz, famously known as “La Veneno.” She was a Spanish transgender woman who gained fame and notoriety in the 1990s. She became an icon in Spain due to her candid and unfiltered personality.

The series, crafted by the talented duo Javier Calvo and Javier Ambrossi, draws its inspiration from Valeria Vegas’ book, “¡Digo! Ni puta ni santa” (2016). Comprising eight episodes, each lasting over thirty minutes, Veneno premiered one episode per week on the Atresplayer Premium streaming platform. It’s also available in HBO Max.

The Biopic Genre

Despite biopic being considered a somewhat neglected genre, TV has boldly embraced biopics, making it one of their flagship genres.

Fictionalizing a Real Life

This genre is within the realm of historical drama. We can turn to David Trueba’s concise definition, describing it as “a fictional genre inspired by the biographies of real people” (EL PAÍS). However, this is not its sole distinctive feature. It offers a unique lens into the lives of individuals set against the backdrop of their times, focusing on the intricate interplay between personal and historical contexts. Unlike straightforward journalistic chronicles, biopics engage in a process of fictionalization. It seeks meaning not only in the subject’s life but also within the genre itself, which can encompass both drama and comedy. When delving into TV biopics, the spotlight typically falls on historical and political figures, yet these productions serve as mirrors into their inner realities, emphasizing the intimacy, character revelation, psychology, and motivation of the individual.

Meaning and Memory

As Cartmell and Polaseck in “A Companion to the Biopic” (2020) point out, biopics have often been criticized as ‘poor art, lacking authenticity and showing disrespect to history’. However, by condensing a person’s life into a series of cause-and-effect events, biopics permit the alteration of the chronological exposition of history, often adopting narrative techniques such as starting ‘in media res‘ or using flashbacks, thus commencing with one of the pivotal moments in the character’s life and structuring their story around significant events, a practical approach given the impossibility of encompassing every detail.

Moreover, this genre frequently “mobilizes the ghosts of its historical agents to investigate, adapt, and provide evidence of the real” (Corrigan, Biopics and the Trembling Ethics of the Real). This is evident in various aspects, from the use of props like photographs or home videos as memory devices to the deliberate manipulation of visual elements, such as film grain or simulated tape damage.

An Opportunity for Actors

One potential drawback of the biopic genre lies in its inability to transcend reality. As Trueba notes, “neither biographies nor supposed recreations of this person’s real life achieved the complexity and precision of a fictional portrait”. In this sense, the appeal of the genre lies in seeing a real person transformed through an actor’s interpretation into a character within a narrative, but it may not always measure up to originally fictional characters.

However, this limitation leads to one of the genre’s most enticing aspects: propelling actors into the race for numerous awards. From Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011) to Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2013) or Olivia Colman in The Crown, biopics have garnered significant recognition for performers who breathe life into historical figures on-screen.

Thanks to their amazing performing, the three actresses that portrays Cristina Ortiz won a number of awards in Spain. They portray her in the different stages of her life: la Jedet, Daniela Santiago and Isabel Torres.

A Non-Linear Narrative

Veneno boasts a non-linear narrative structure. It simultaneously unfolds the stories of la Veneno and Valeria Vegas, the writer of her memoirs. It uses a parallel structure past-present.

For that reason, the series also employs flashbacks to different periods in Cristina’s life. Some episodes include her childhood, her early years in Madrid and her rise to television stardom.

Three Worlds Collide in Veneno

The series seamlessly blends three distinct worlds: actual reality (featuring archival footage), plausible fictional elements, and fantasies of La Veneno. The complexity of this fusion is best explained by one of the show’s screenwriters:

Cristina was quite the storyteller. So, you know her reality, or her fantasy, and you have to somehow figure out what’s true, what’s an exaggeration, and what’s a lie. With Valeria, we talked a lot about this issue, and in the end, we laughed and said, ‘Well, it’s her series; let it be what she wants it to be.’ Therefore, we had Cristina’s reality, but we also had to be very careful because the series, based on that reality, was constructing a portrayal of an unjust and marginalized situation of a community.

Claudia Costafreda in Cómo se escriben las series de televisión en España: Conversaciones sobre guion con sus creadores (Ruiz Muñóz, M. J. y Raya Bravo, I., ReaDuck Ediciones)

This hybridization is evident in the final episode, “Los tres entierros de Cristina Ortiz” (1×08). The episode presents two real funerals for La Veneno, one in Parque del Oeste (Madrid) and another in her hometown, alongside an entirely imaginary funeral that Valeria narrates to an imaginary apparition of La Veneno after her passing. This fictional funeral includes all the people Cristina had ever known in her life, even a prince she once met. The episode also grounds itself in reality by featuring a recording of Cristina’s real voice at the end.

Diverse Character Dynamics

The characters in the series are a mix of fictional ones, fictionalized real-life figures and actual people.

This blend becomes evident through cameos by well-known Spanish media figures such as María Teresa Campos and Carmen Borrego. Additionally, Paca la Piraña and Juani Ruiz, two real friends of Cristina, portray themselves in their older versions.

Still from Veneno

Fictionalizing the Reality of la Veneno

Apart from incorporating real archival footage, it also fictionalizes elements of the real context. In the last episode, where Cristina’s hospital progress is depicted through a program reminiscent of the Spanish TV Sálvame.

A Broader Perspective

Biopics allow us to “relive” the lives of significant individuals in history. In the case of Cristina Ortiz, this undertaking holds even more significance. As Costafreda describes it, “It was about constructing a broader portrait of transgender identity and the reality of trans women. In the end, it wasn’t just Cristina’s life; it was the lives of many others.”

Veneno: A Trailblazer in Biopics

Veneno is not just a biopic. It’s a complex tapestry of fact and fiction, fantasy and reality. It seamlessly weaves together the life of Cristina Ortiz with a broader narrative about transgender identity. This series challenges our understanding of storytelling and the portrayal of marginalized communities, making it a noteworthy addition to the world of biographical dramas.

Disclaimer from the first episode of the series 'Veneno'
Disclaimer from the first episode of the series: “This story is based on the memories of Cristina Ortiz, La Veneno, and on the accounts of some of the people whose lives she changed. Like in all stories that come from memory, there is something of reality and something of fiction in it. And, like in all fictional stories, there is something that is profoundly true in it.