Latino Images in Film – Yo, La Peor de Todas (1990)
When TCM announced their upcoming series of Latino Images in Film, I didn’t pay much attention to the schedule because I knew I’d be busy with summer classes. Little did I know that my Latin American History class would be based largely in film studies. While these films will not be the same as those shown on TCM throughout the month, I thought it would still be a nice complement to the festival. The first week has begun with the colonial period in Latin American history, and the film would chronicle the life of the revolutionary Mexican poetess, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz (1651-1695).
Maria Luisa Bemberg ’s Yo, La Peor de Todas approaches the life of Sor Juana with both an eye for historical accuracy as well as a modern feminist interpretation of convent life in New Spain (Mexico). Bemberg’s Juana operates within a world that does not greet female brilliance with kindness or toleration, but she moves beyond this handicap as well as she can within the confines of the convent. She finds favor with the Viceroy and his wife, which shields her somewhat from political and religious persecution, but it cannot shield her indefinitely. Sor Juana vacillates between impertinence and self-denying humility during the film, and at times it can be rather difficult to decifer whether or not she is truly dedicated to a life of religious devotion.
The real Sor Juana was a prolific writer and one of the most brilliant minds of her time. This did not bode well for her life in the church, however, and she came under increasing censorship and punishment from Church officials. It is debateable whether the Church truly broke her spirit as is portrayed in the film, but there is evidence that she continued until the time of her death during a Plague epidemic. One of her most well-known works, “Letter to Sor Filotea,” begins, continues, and ends on a note of supreme contrition. Sor Juana pleads, “I want to trouble with the Holy Office, for I am but ignorant and tremble lest I utter some ill-sounding proposition or twist the true meaning of some passage” (209). She makes plain her simple desire to “become less ignorant” and displays no pretensions about her intellectual abilities. Bemberg’s Juana assumes this position of supplication when under threat of punishment from the Church, but once free of this looming persecution she returns to her life of study. Juana privately rages against the patriarchal strictures of the Church, and finally lashes out against the Archbishop himself.
Bemberg’s decision to interweave undercurrents of lesbianism between Sor Juana and La Virreina seems to be an attempt to clarify the intent of some of Juana’s poetry that expresses love for another woman. The film does not explicitly portray such a relationship, but several scenes can only leave little doubt of their mutual attraction, especially when La Virreina asks Juana to remove her layered veil. The creation of such a relationship is not beyond the realm of possibility for such a woman as Juana, who puts pen to paper with her feminism in “On Men’s Hypocrisy.” She makes no effort to conceal her disgust with sexual double–standards, and produces an irrefutable treatise with which to combat such inequality.
The principal performances are stellar, and Assumpta Serna ‘s Juana is an engaging mixture of spiritual confusion and proto-feminist indignation at the misogyny of the Church. The production itself is incredibly dark – I imagine this was meant to recreate not only the filth of daily colonial life, but also to lend to the mood of spiritual ambiguity. I was struck by how Godless the Church officials appear to be – embodied in the character of the Archbishop – when compared to the spiritual simplicity of those lower on the spiritual totem pole (nuns, confessors, etc.)