Dear Common Readers,
Yo, La Peor de Todas, the 1990 film about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, is available online — with English subtitles! I just watched it and I definitely recommend it for fans of Sor Juana and her writing.
The film is directed and co-written by Maria Luisa Bemberg of Argentina. Ms. Bemberg’s career is also inspiring. She began her screenwriting career at the age of 48. A decade later, Ms. Bemberg directed her first feature film in 1981 at the age of 59. She wrote nine screenplays, directed six film, and won several awards over a period of 24 years before her death from cancer in 1995 at the age of 73. Yo, La Peor de Todas (I, the Worst of All) was Argentina’s selection in the Foreign Language Film category for the 1990 Academy Awards.
The screenplay was based on Sor Juana or, The Traps of Faith, Octavio Paz’s biography of Sor Juana. I haven’t read the book yet so I cannot comment on the film’s fidelity to the book. What I can say is that Ms. Bemberg made a feminist film that positions Sor Juana as a feminist heroine.
The best part is the liberal use of Sor Juana’s work throughout the film. Viewers get to see a bit of a scene from one of Sor Juana’s plays near the beginning of the film. Characters recite her poems from memory and read them aloud. Lines of her poetry are read in voiceovers as Sor Juana writes onscreen. Sor Juana reads aloud from her challenge to Father António Vieira’s sermon and later reads from her famous Respuesta.
There are several scenes in which characters discuss Sor Juana’s work. Interestingly, one scene has a group of clergymen discussing Sor Juana’s passionate love poetry. Like many readers, the men debate whether Sor Juana was merely following poetic convention or if she was writing about her own feelings of erotic love for another woman. Ms. Bemberg does take a position on the question in her depiction of the relationship between Sor Juana and the Vicereine, but I won’t reveal it here.
Admittedly, the movie has a stage-set look and dialogue-heavy scenes that sometimes make it feel more like a recording of a stage play than a film. That’s not necessarily a drawback, though. In fact, I think it works particularly well for the scenes of political maneuvering between the Viceroy and the Archbishop and the scenes of political intrigue among other clergymen.
Ms. Bemberg uses simple sets to create a strong visual contrast between the stark, shadowy world of male power plays and political intrigue on one hand and the bright, warm, joyful world of female camaraderie and purpose in the convent scenes. Even the scenes with the Vicereine and her family are light and warm. The sole exception is the convent scene in which Sister Ursula conspires with the Archbishop of Mexico in a shadowy underground hallway.
This visual contrast is put to good use later in the film. After Sor Juana is forced to dismantle her library and give away her books and laboratory equipment, the convent scenes become darker and shadowy. And when the nuns fall ill with the plague, the scenes become increasingly stark but never cold. The joy is gone, but the affection remains as the healthy nuns tenderly care for their stricken sisters.
Ms. Bemberg, who lived through the repressive regime of the military junta in Argentina in the 1970s and the 1980s, depicts in this film the ripple effect of oppression. In silencing Sor Juana, the Archbishop and the Inquisition extinguished the light and joy of her entire community of women and by extension made the world a colder, darker place. Foolish men indeed.
Check it out and let me know what you think of it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Your sister reader,
P.S. A simple internet search will turn up not only this film but also recitations of Sor Juana’s poetry in the original Spanish like these videos of Redondilla 92 and “Primero Sueño” (“First Dream”). Enjoy!