Nun so bold

In the provocative religious drama I, the Worst of All, a creature of habit struggles for creative expression

Subdued, elegant, and directed with disarming simplicity, I, the Worst of All (Yo, La Peor de Todas) is the kind of historical drama whose resonance sneaks up on you.

On the surface, it's an intimate religious drama about a minor figure in Catholic history, a 17th-century Mexican writer and nun named Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz (played by Assumpta Serna, best known to American audiences as the femme fatale from Spanish bad boy Pedro Almodovar's campy smutfest Matador). It's about how Sister Juana's need to express her creative urges through poetry brought her into conflict with the church's male power structure.

It's also about her struggle to reconcile the sensual feelings awakened by her poetry with the vow of chastity she took when she became a nun--a struggle made messy by the intense devotion of her beautiful female patron, Luisa, a viceroy's wife played by Dominique Sanda. But on a deeper and more disturbing level, the film is concerned with the age-old struggle of women to assert themselves against a male-dominated society.

Fortunately, director Maria Luisa Bemberg handles this point with a delicate touch--so subtly, in fact, that the picture only occasionally feels ponderous or preachy. It's possible to enjoy I, the Worst of All either as a straightforward and emotional drama about a woman trying to reach her full potential under oppressive circumstances, or as a parable of the uses and abuses of power that works simultaneously on three planes--religious, political, and sexual.

Bemberg plunges us into her historical milieu with both feet and expects us to orient ourselves as best we can. It's the eve of the Spanish Inquisition, and Mexico, a colony of Spain, is rife with conflicts--Old World and New, religious life and secular, faith and reason.

When we first get to know Juana, she's been a nun for years; she joined the sisterhood not necessarily out of a sense of religious duty, but because at that time, becoming a nun was one of only a handful of societal identities offered to women--along with marriage, motherhood, spinsterhood, and prostitution. Juana loves learning--her room is full of books, maps, and measuring instruments--and she also has a burning urge to create. She writes letters, plays, and poems; with the support of the viceroy and his wife, her verse is even published, to surprising popular acclaim.

The muse for Juana's more suggestive poetry is the viceroy's wife; her relationship with Juana is that of a patron and her charge. But there's always an undercurrent of sexual tension. Perhaps the source of this dangerous energy is the women's knowledge that in bonding emotionally and intellectually through Juana's verse, they're flouting numerous cultural taboos.

In this time and place, it's not really considered acceptable for a woman to court public acclaim as a writer, much less as a poet specializing in passionate, erotically tinged material. Stir in a lesbian element, and you have a potentially explosive cocktail that any number of governmental troublemakers might use to their advantage--notably the archbishop, an Old World authoritarian who constantly clashes with the colony's political leader, the liberal-minded viceroy, over Mexico's moral and political direction.

In a sense, Juana's complex and conflicted character represents, in microcosm, most of the conflicts being played out around her. Like Juana, Mexico is a predominantly religious region of the world easing inexorably into a more secular identity. Part of this new identity--assuming, of course, that Mexico's conservative rulers eventually choose to embrace it--publicly acknowledges the multilayered, contradictory, fascinating nature of sex.

To director Bemberg, there's a clear link between sexual and intellectual awakening; it's no accident that both Juana's life of the mind and her carnal urges seem to develop along parallel tracks, flowering steadily under the attentions of Luisa, the viceroy's wife. (Two scenes involving the archbishop set off intriguingly complementary echoes: one where he expresses concern that Juana's poetry is inappropriate for popular consumption, and another in which he orders a chapter on Protestantism removed from a book about current issues facing the Catholic Church. In the latter scene, he warns his more liberal-minded colleagues that allowing a troublesome idea into print is the same as admitting its validity, so it's better in the long run to eliminate all evidence of its existence; that statement bodes ill both for controversial thought and for our controversial heroine.)

It's also no accident that the powerful men watching over Juana and Luisa can't bear the thought of anything private and emotionally meaningful going on between these two women--religious, sexual, or both--without their express permission. The opposition to Juana's lifestyle gradually increases until she becomes a political pawn who's batted about with impunity; the most revelatory aspect of her predicament is that the men who fight against her ultimately seem to despise not her lesbian inclinations or her pursuit of secular knowledge, but her independence in general. After a certain point, they no longer make any distinction between Juana's individuality as a sexual being and her independent spirit as a writer and thinker.

Bemberg lets these abstract issues emerge naturally. There aren't a lot of bravura, movie-movie touches; for the most part, the filmmaker stays out of the way of her actors and her script (which was adapted from a story by Nobel-prizewinning Mexican author Octavio Paz). Bemberg's eye favors plainly composed frames that stress shapes, lines, and solid masses of color, often evoking religious frescoes and oil paintings from a period when the details of three-dimensional perspective were still being hashed out.

And she rarely overemphasizes any of her thematic points. There are only a handful of lines and scenes that feel off, including a discussion of the church's treatment of nuns that spells everything out in a rather clunky way ("The church is implacable with its rebellious daughters"), and a sexually tense conversation between Juana and Luisa that ends with the viceroy smiling like Vivien Leigh in Blanche DuBois mode and purring, "Open my bodice--it's too tight."

It's only because Bemberg is so precise and reserved that the film doesn't veer toward camp more often. Because I, Worst of All is constructed with such simplicity, sincerity, and directness, it lends itself organically to the straightforward exchange of philosophical and religious ideas. The script's big issues stream through the drama naturally, like beams of light through panes of stained glass, and the results are intimate and illuminating.

I, the Worst of All (Yo, La Peor de Todas). First Run Features. Assumpta Serna, Dominique Sanda. Written by Maria Luisa Bemberg and Antonio Lareta, based on The Traps of Faith, by Octavio Paz. Directed by Maria Luisa Bemberg. Through March 2 at the Major Theatre.

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