A Woman Named Juana & Two Named Maria Luisa
by Louis Bedrock, April 19, 2017
When director Maria Luisa Bemberg, Argentinian film maker, encountered Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, probably when she read The Traps of Faith by Octavio Paz, she found a kindred spirit. It is not surprising that Bemberg would make a film about Sor Juana because they had much in common despite the almost three centuries between them.
Benberg married young; she bore and raised four children. But at the age of thirty-five, with her children grown, she divorced her husband and began to make up for lost time. She dabbled in writing for a while, attended an acting seminar at the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute, and in 1981, at age 59, wrote and directed her first feature film, Momentos. Yo, La Peor de Todas / I The Worst of All was made in 1990.
Maria Luisa Bemberg must have seen synchronicity in the name of Sor Juana’s powerful friend and protector, Maria Luisa Manrique de Lara y Ganzaga, Countess de Paredes. Maria Luisa and her husband, Don Tomás Antonio de la Cerda, third Marques of Laguna, were designated viceroys of Mexico in May de 1680 and became the most powerful defenders of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, protecting her from the excesses and misogyny of the Catholic Church, personified by the Archbishop of Mexico, Francisco Aguiar y Seijas.
Juana Ramirez was born in Mexico, or Nueva España, in 1648. She would have been a member of Mensa if Mensa had existed in 17th century Mexico. She learned to read when she was three, and mastered Greek and Latin before she was thirteen. She wrote her first poem at the age of eight. She read all of the books in her maternal grandfather’s large library when she was still a child, and at the age of sixteen was denied permission by her mother to disguise herself as a boy so she could attend the university in Mexico City.
When she was 17, the Viceroy of Mexico at the time invited a distinguished group of intellectuals, theologians, academics, and writers to an “examination” of Juana in which she was obliged to spontaneously answer questions covering all fields of human knowledge. She passed the test with aplomb, astonishing all those who were present and forging her reputation in Mexico and Europe.
At the age of twenty, with the encouragement of her mentor and confessor, Father Antonio Nuñez de Miranda, she entered the monastery of Santa Paula of the Order of San Jerónimo. He assured her that this was the best way for her to continue to study, think, and write at a time when these activities were proscribed for women.
The film I, The Worst of All begins when Juana is already an important figure in the convent, throughout Mexico, and even in Spain. The new viceroy of Nueva España and his wife have recently arrived and are eager to meet Sor Juana, known in Spain as “The Tenth Muse”.
Juana has written a play for the occasion and among the spectators are not only the viceroys, but also the figure who will become Juana’s chief antagonist, the Archbishop, Francisco Aguiar y Seijas.
Doña Maria Luisa and Don Tomás are delighted by the comedy. The viceroy stumbles while trying to repeat some lines from the play mocking men. Juana overhears him, approaches, and recites the lines:
“Foolish men, you accuse women without reason without seeing that you create that for which you blame them”
The Viceroys, enchanted by Juana, decide to “adopt” her while the virulently misogynous Archbishop Aguiar y Seijas mutters, “This is not a convent: it is a brothel.”
The Vicereine is drawn to Juana because she sees a similarity between Juana’s life and her own. She goes to visit Juana in the convent and speaks to her through the bars that separate the nun from her guests. The countess complains about the bars, but Juana says she no longer sees them. The following dialogue, which is in the movie, does not appear in the book. I wondered as I watched it if it weren’t as much a dialogue between Maria Luisa Bemberg and Juana as between Maria Luisa Manrique de Lara y Ganzaga and Juana:
—We live similar lives, Sor Juana.
—I don’t think so, Madam.
—Yes, we do! You live with veil; I with the crown. You’re not allowed to leave the convent. Do you think I can escape from the palace? You obey the rules of the order; I, the protocol. I was told that when you were twenty, you entered the convent; at twenty, I was obliged to marry. I wonder--for which of us is the world more stifling?
—Madam, may I respond with four modest verses of mine?
—The soul is locked in no prison,
Nor restrained by iron gates,
The only bonds that restrain it,
Are those it itself creates.
Much has been made of the relationship between Sor Juana and Maria Luisa Manrique. The movie was popular at LGBT film festivals because of it. The movie, although not the book, suggests that the relationship might have gone beyond the Platonic.
This is not central to the importance of the story, which deals with the problems confronting a woman who dared to be passionate, brilliant, creative, and outspoken when these traits could lead to condemnation by the Inquisition and being burned alive. This happened to Giordano Bruno—an event alluded to in the film; and he wasn’t a woman.
I, The Worst of All received mixed reviews. The most common criticism was that the movie was too slow moving. I disagree and feel that its 107 minutes pass too quickly-- and I have seen the film three times. I first saw it about 10 years ago. Bemberg’s use of chiaroscuro led me to incorrectly remember the movie as being in black and white. When I bought my own copy of the DVD and watched it again, I was surprised to see it was in color.
The dramatic tension of the film escalates as the friction between Juana and the repressive society in which she lives escalates. Eventually the forces in Mexico and Spain that have protected her are weakened and her enemies gain an advantage. The agent of this repression is the Archbishop Aguilar y Seijas, and the most dramatic scene of the movie occurs when his animosity toward Juana and all women leads him to make an impertinent comment that triggers an explosive reaction by Juana.
The title of the film comes from the abjurations Juana was obliged to write by her confessor, Antonio Nuñez de Miranda. In El libro de profesiones –The Book of Proclamations of the convent, Juana wrote:
Here, above shall be noted the day, month, and year of my death. I beg my beloved sisters, those pious ones already in the Hereafter, that in the name of God and the Immaculate Mother, that they entrust me to God for I have been the worst there is. To all, for the love of God and he Holy Mother, I beg for pardon.
— I, The Worst of All: Juana Inés de la Cruz
The Archbishop, Francisco Aguiar y Seijas, her confessor, Father Antonio Nuñez de Miranda, and the fear of the Inquisition compelled Sor Juana to renounce her love of learning and her writing and to turn over to the Church her books, scientific equipment, and musical instruments.
However, in the year 1700, 5 years after her death in April of 1695, Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz was published. In this document Juana defends her own right, as well as all women’s right, to pursue a life of literature and learning. She alludes to Hypatia among other examples of learned women.
Maria Luisa Manrique de Lara y Ganzaga, Countess de Paredes, loved and protected her. Octavio Paz wrote a 700 page book about her. Maria Luisa Bemberg made a movie about her. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, one of the great voices of the Golden Age of Spanish Literature, was a pioneer and icon of feminism, and is an inspiration for anyone oppressed by the Zeitgeist of her age. Or his age.