Film review: “Juana la Loca” (aka “The Madness of Love”), reviewed by Ana Areces

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.

P.S.
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.

Film review: “The Thirteenth Warrior”, reviewed by Jarl Valgard

Film Review: ” The Thirteenth Warrior”

by Valgard Jarl, Ulfhednar, Stiersman of Tribe Rot Mahne, Bundir to Alfrik Favnesbane

from the Sept. 1999 Seahorse

Okay, first the petty SCA nitpicking: I hated the armor, as most other SCA people will hate the armor, and the ships were a bit too Boris Vallejo for me. There is no reason to put Beowulf in fantasy/gothic plate. I also hated it when a couple of characters showed up wearing SCA armor (though it looked better then the other stuff). Normally we get to gripe about how the armorers knew nothing and how we SCA people could do so much better, but since the weapons (and probably some of the armor) were made by SCA people up in Lionsgate, we get to gripe at ourselves for a change. (Of course if Sir Gaston had won the bid it might have been a bit different). For a movie based on a book with such fine anthropological detail, that was gnawing — especially since the rest of the film was very good in that regard.

That being said, the movie is awesome. I’ll probably go see it again this afternoon. They made very few changes in the story to accommodate the filming, adding a small subplot and changing how some of the battles play out to make them more spectacular. If you’ve read the book you won’t be very disappointed. They dropped a few things to make it more palatable, like the fact that before a woman was burnt with a king she had sex with every member of his crew — which is part of Ibn Fadhlan’s development into a warrior when he does the same at Buliwyf’s funeral. And they did not show Buliwyf’s funeral, which would have been a good visual to end the film on. I also really wanted to see the scene about the “Soup Sickness.”

An interesting point: the reason Crichton has a directing credit on this film is because he had a fight with John Mactiernan over how the ending would be edited, and he won. It is good to see an author of a novel maintain that kind of control when his books are made into movies (Crichton and Stephen King are about the only ones who can. Even Tom Clancy couldn’t fight the producers when they wanted to fire Alec Baldwin and hire Harrison Ford — whom Clancy thinks is totally unsuited to the role — to play Jack Ryan). Making the Vendel bear berserks (which I don’t recall from the book) was really cool as far as I was concerned, especially since, even though it was a change from the book, it is one which was not too far off from period Viking culture.

Visually the film is rich in color and scenery. It was shot in the fjords in BC (one film which could not have been made as well in Hollywood), and the landscapes are stunning. Even better are the two CGI scenes which open the film, the one of Buliwyf’s longboat surfing down a fifty foot wave during a storm, the other of 10th Century Baghdad at sunset. Not only are they beautiful, but they open the film with two perfect visual contrasts between Ibn Fadhlan’s old life and his new one.

The casting was superb. They hired Scandinavian and English actors to play the Vikings, which not only gave them a foreign quality but it meant they were being played by people who really looked like Vikings instead of coverboys for Flex magazine.

But the best thing about the film is the way it portrayed the Viking spirit. Their embrace of battle is truly joyous, and when they are sure they are going to die even more so, as they are sure they will reach Valhalla. The scene where the twelve heroes volunteer for the journey is one of the best portrayals of Vikings in American cinema — better even than Kirk Douglas’s film (which had the benefit of the Vikings’ armor being more or less accurate and the English armor only being about 200 years too late). It is clear from everything they do that these are warriors for whom death is a constant companion, whose only fear is to die poorly, and whose greatest hope is that songs will be sung about them when they are gone.

I loved this film. It made my Viking blood boil.

Book review: The Medieval Garden, Sylvia Landsberg, reviewed by Stephen Bloch

Tending your Garden

by Stephen Bloch

Sylvia Landsberg has a job to die for.  The dust jacket of The Medieval Garden (Thames & Hudson 1996?, ISBN  0-500-01691-7) describes her as “a garden historian and lecturer who has designed several thirteenth- to sixteenth-century gardens.”  In other words, she’s a professional garden recreator, involved in designing reconstructed medieval gardens at Singleton (in Sussex), Hangleton (in Sussex), Crickhowell (in Wales), Winchester Castle, and Shrewsbury (home of Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael), all of which she discusses in detail in a chapter entitled “The Medieval Garden Re-Created.”

In this beautifully illustrated and (apparently, to my inexpert eye) carefully researched book, Landsberg distinguishes several types of medieval European garden.  The enclosed “herber”, of under an acre, was often divided in half by a low wall or fence, one side for raised beds of flowers and herbs, the other largely lawn, with turf-covered benches and shade trees for recreation.  The orchard, typically one to four acres, might have trellises and tunnel arbors, between its rows of fruit and nut trees.  The “pleasure park”, typically around ten acres, seems to have been a forest stocked with wildlife, not for hunting but just for spectacle: cleared avenues among the trees radiated from a central pavilion or gazebo, from which nobles and their guests could watch deer, rabbits, hares, goats, porcupines, and in the largest parks lynxes and lions.

Landsberg describes all these, as well as vineyards, peasant and kitchen gardens (essentially an herber without the recreational half) in sufficient detail– measurements, species lists, construction diagrams, gardening tools, crop rotation schedules, etc.– that the reader might join her in reconstructing them.  A whole chapter entitled “Make Your Own Medieval Garden” discusses tradeoffs among authenticity, practicality, and expense, and suggests plans suitable for residential yards as small as a hundred square feet.

Landsberg writes from a decidedly British viewpoint, and the English gardening terminology may send you to your dictionary, but many of the plants she recommends are readily available in the U.S., having immigrated and taken the role of roadside weeds centuries ago.  The book ends with a list of re-created gardens to visit (the one U.S. entry being New York City’s  Cloisters), a list of recommended suppliers for gardening materials, an index of plant species mentioned in the text, and an extensive bibliography.

Missing from Landsberg’s bibliography, but perhaps of interest to local garden re-creators, is Tania Bayard’s Sweet Herbs and Sundry Flowers: Medieval Gardens and the Gardens of the Cloisters (Metropolitan Museum of Art 1985, ISBN 0-87099-422-0 or 0-87923-593-4).

[from the January 1997 Seahorse]