Film Review: “Juana La Loca”, aka “The Madness of Love”
by Donna Ana de Guzman
from the ??? 2002 Seahorse
Foreign movies on period subjects theoretically have an advantage in that the producers and directors might have more of an interest in getting the historical detail correct. Distribution to the US being what it is, though, some sacrifices to said detail may occur. The translation of the title instead of being “Joan the Mad” has been brought to these shores as “The Madness of Love.”
This film is a serious contender for the Foreign Language Oscar, and I can see why. It was only on for a few days at the Walter Reade Theater here in NYC, but if you get a chance to see it either on cable or DVD/video, it’ll be worth it. I may not have as well a trained eye as some regarding garb, but I can safely say that this film tried and mostly succeeded in getting the visual details right, from the color of Isabel la Catolica’s hair in the beginning of the film to the heraldry on the ceremonial surcoat that Juana wears toward the end of the film. (This was made in Spain, after all, not LA, and this story is a fascinating part of Spanish history.)
Director Vicente Aranda has his actors telling the story of Juana de Castilla’s descent into madness after marrying the Hapsbourg Archduke Felipe el Hermoso with a light touch, almost to the point of sugar-coating. He plays a bit loosely with history, making Felipe El Hermoso still quite handsome (played by Italian actor Daniele Liotti– somewhat resembling Squire Conrad Ulm, no less) but a little less abusive toward Juana, and implying that some of her “madness” might have been a more modern outlook on her part regarding certain customs, but which were deemed scandalous at the time.
After she gives birth to Leonor, their first child, she insists on nursing the baby herself, and makes no effort to hide the fact that she enjoys doing so. “Estas loca,” her husband tells her affectionately, but with a hint of worry. In another scene, she is dancing a galliard at a ball when she gets a panicked look on her face, excuses herself hastily, and rushes off to quickly give premature birth (a little over 8 months) to the son who would become Carlos V. I can’t speak to the first scene, but the second is taken from recorded fact.
There’s the cinematic implication that since she was either pregant or in post-partum much of the time, her mood swings could have easily been hormonal as well, and that the men in her life, especially her father and her husband, exploited her condition to fabricate more madness than there actually was as an excuse to put her away and rule in her stead.
Pilar Lopez de Alaya looks a little like a Spanish Winona Ryder. She manages to portray Juana convincingly as a somewhat moody young woman who was not quite ready to accept her role as a princess marrying for politics, but does her duty anyway. She’s at first ecstatic at landing a spouse who turns out to be extremely easy on the eye, and starts turning out child after child. The film digresses from recorded history in that Felipe does not take her Spanish entourage away from her from the beginning, replace them with his people, sytematically make her useless for all purposes but breeding, and flaunt his mistresses almost to her face. The film paints a nicer picture of him, making him coolly abusive and ruthless toward her only after a series of deaths in her family make *her* the sole heir to Spanish lands, and makes him actually repentant of his conduct toward Juana on his deathbed. Whether such a deathbed plea for forgiveness actually happened is anyone’s guess, but for Juana’s sake it would have been nice.
The one point that I took serious issue with in the entire film has to do with one of the mistresses, and a scene when Juana confronts said mistress. You’ll know which one I mean when you see it. (Not the hair-cutting scene–that one is taken from life, and actually more subdued than the record of that event would have it.)
In short, this is a darker Spanish version of Shakespeare in Love, a bit of historical fiction very well done, a feast for the eyes with a little food for thought as well.
This one is *not* for young children to watch, since one emphasis of the film is on the grand unshakeable passion Juana had for Felipe. Of course, I’m somewhat of a prude by SCA standards, so take the above with however much salt you wish. It has as much eroticism as Shakespeare in Love did, but with a much unhappier ending.