Monday, February 6, 2017

Juana Inés - a film review

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
First thing you need to know if you watch Juana Inés is that “viceroy” is “virrey” in Spanish, and Mrs. Viceroy is “virreina.”  Since people learn about viceroys in school, the term is probably familiar to most modern speakers of English.  Not so his lady-partner’s title, which is not Mrs. Viceroy, actually, but “vicereine.”  If you’re a follower of the goings-on in the British Royal Family, you may know that Prince Charles, the king-in-waiting, is the grandnephew of Louis, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, of whom he was especially fond.  Louis is sometimes referred to as “the last Viceroy of India,” done in by an IRA bomb in 1947.  Charles’s father, Prince Philip, is said to have found Charles’ weeping over his mentor great uncle’s death unseemly for a royal and is known to have said to Charles, “Mountbatten is dead and there is no good sniveling about the fact.”

We in the anglophone world naturally pick up trivia like that.  If you were raised in a hispanophone environment instead, you might not know much about Louis, but you would maybe know about this marvelous Mexican nun named Juana Inés, who may or may not have been a lesbian.  Making her one is the latest thing.  We can’t know for sure because back in the 17th century rubbing the virreina’s breasts with almond oil didn’t necessarily make you a lesbian, especially if you were a lady-in-waiting and were told to do it by the virreina herself.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, O.S.H. (that’s Ordo Sancti Hieronymi, not Orchard Supply Hardware) was born Juana Inés de Asabaje y Ramírez de Santillana on November 12, 1651, to a Spanish captain and his criole concubine, Isabel, in San Miguel Nepantla, near Mexico City.  San Miguel Nepantla has since been renamed Nepantla de Sor Juana Inés.  Concubine or no concubine, Juana’s mother came from a fine family, and Juana got to grow up in a place called Amecameca, where her mother’s father had an impressive library.  Juana learned to read and write Latin by the age of three and began writing poetry at eight.  She also spoke and wrote poems in Nahuatl as well.

Hernán del Riego as Padre Antonio
Here her personal history merges with fiction, but somehow she wormed her way into the viceroy’s court and caught the attention not only of the almond oil loving vicereine, but of the leading philosophers, theologians, poets and other notables of the court.  Because the vicereine wanted her for their daughter’s tutor, the viceroy subjected her to a public examination of the knowledge for which she was already famous.  At some point she either became tutor to the viceroy’s daughter or was persuaded by her father confessor to become a nun.  Or both.  If you’re interested in the actual historical facts, they may be found in Octavio Paz’s book on Sister Joan Agnes of the Cross, as she is known in English.  Spanish title: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz o las trampas de la fe; English title: Sor Juana: Or, the Traps of Faith.

Or you can binge-watch a highly entertaining Mexican soap opera on Netflix in seven parts, as I did last night till about three in the morning.  Juana is played first by Arantza Ruiz as a young girl and then by Mexican actress Arcelia Ramírez.  They look nothing alike and the switch from one to the other is a jolt.  But you get over it.  Arcelia Ramírez is known to many for her role in Like Water for Chocolate, one of fifty films and TV shows in which she has appeared since 1985.

I love how the Mexicans can sock it to the Roman Catholic Church.  I guess you have to be raised Catholic to be able to kick the dying institution that hard.  What a cast of religious charlatans.  Who knows what the historical Father Confessor, Padre Antonio Núñez de Miranda, (played by superb actor Hernán Del Riego) was actually like.  Or the pathological woman-hater, Francisco de Aguiar y Seijas, whom  Pope Innocent XI made Archbishop of New Spain (i.e., Mexico) in 1680 (when Sor Juana was 29, in other words).  His role was played by Carlos Valencia.  Archbishop Francisco not only hated women.  And cockfights and bullfights, both of which he shut down.  But plays and music. And walking on the same surfaces nuns walked on.  In the series Juana Inés, he is the downfall of the heroine, aided by other clerics and even the viceroy, whom he has intimidated with his ecclesiastical power.  Between him and Padre Antonio you have enough evidence to prove that the Roman Catholic Church is not merely rotten to the core.  It is actually governed and maintained by Satan himself.

Great entertainment.  Sloppy and overdone in parts, and much that might have been artful has been lost by pressing it into the service of modern-day feminist and LGBT causes. But then, if you are for those causes, you will readily forgive that peccadillo. Juana Inés was also proof to the old world that talent abounded in the colonies, so there’s a political bit to play with there, as well.  I leave it to native or near-native speakers of Spanish to judge the quality of Juana’s poetry.  About all I can do is sit and marvel at this lovely soul’s obsessive need to write, and accept that many see her as probably the greatest poet of the colonial era.  And many (Octavio Paz included, apparently) would argue even that’s not giving her the credit she deserves.

Available in Netflix streaming.  Make enough popcorn for seven 50-minute episodes.

picture credits: Juana Inés 
Hernán del Riego as Father Confessor Padre Antonio

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