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: How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill, reviewed by Richard the Poor

Book Review
by Richard the Poor of Ely

How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe
By Thomas Cahill, pub. Nan A. Talese – Doubleday, New York
Copyright 1995 by the author

Well, here’s a nice bit of nationalist hyperbole.  Cahill so boldly and broadly states his goal in the title that when he doesn’t quite reach it the reader (at least this one) feels cheated and disappointed.  He spends virtually all of the book setting the stage to explain how the monasteries established by Irish missionaries in the sixth and seventh centuries became the centers for the revival of learning in the Carolingian era, and then passes over that subject in at most a few pages.

Mr. Cahill, you’ve shown us how Western Europe lost “civilization”, and how the Celtic catholic church got to be the people who would bring it back.  Can’t you devote the same attention to the subject stated in your main title?

It’s not that the book is bad; it’s just that it’s incomplete.  Much of the historical material is presented through biographices of a few key people (Ausonius and Augustine of Hippo for the Late Roman Empire, for example).  An entire chapter discusses the mindset of pagan Ireland, and another discusses the life and labors of St. Patrick.  When the chance comes to sum up the saving of civilization by Irish missionaries with the life of the ninth century philosopher John Scotus Eriugena (John the Irishman from Ireland), this “most splendid blossom of the continental spring” rates only two pages.

Cahill includes many excerpts from Irish poetry of the era.  While the most relevant may be “The Hermit’s Song” (attributed to a disciple of St. Patrick) as it shows (according to Cahill’s commentary) how the quiet hermitage of a solitary monk became a full-fledged community, my favorite is a ninth-century insert into a miscellany by an anonymous copyist, beginning with the line “I and Pangur Ban my cat”.

If one wants to look for the heroes in “Ireland’s Heroic Role”, the people Cahill nominates for the honor are St. Patrick (of course), Columcille (known outside Ireland as St. Columba), who brought Celtic Christianity to England, and St. Columbanus, who went to Europe and set up monasteries as far south as Italy.

Cahill’s basic premise is that the catholic (i.e. open-minded) character of the Irish allowed them to value knowledge regardless of its source, and thus their monastic scribes copied Classical literature in addition to religious works.  They were then the people that Europe would turn to for scholars when the bits of Europe started to come back together.

Personally, I don’t feel it was their “Irishness” that let the Irish save Civilization, but simply the fact that they were literate when few others were.  The monks at the monasteries founded by Irish missionaries would become the logical choice for administrators as Medieval Europe was beginning.

[from the March 1997 Seahorse]

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]

Book review: The Realm of Prester John, Robert Silverberg, reviewed by Richard the Poor

Book Review
by Master Richard the Poor of Ely

The Realm of Prester John
Robert Silverberg
Doubleday & Company, Garden City  NY
Copyright 1972 by the author

Of the many legends of the Middle Ages, one of the most intriguing and enduring was the legend of Prester John.  Said to be a Christian king and high priest of India, he was offering his aid to Manuel Comnenus, Emperor of Byzantium, in fighting off the Moslems.  The problem was that no one had ever heard of him or knew where to find him.  The search would last for four centuries and end up in Ethiopia, of all places.

Robert Silverberg has written a comprehensive account of the legend and the searches that it caused.  The entire history of the legend is analyzed, from the first hints of Prester John’s “existence” to the Portuguese mission to Ethiopia in the mid sixteenth century.

Silverberg has to touch on many topics.  Prester John’s being a Christian means a discussion of early Christian sects and the legends of the Apostle Thomas.  He looks at the linguistic analyses that were done to make various titles and honorifics sound like “Prester John.” He discusses how the original letter was built on to become a collection of virtually all the geographic fables to back up the legend and keep people searching.

The earliest searches were in Asia, where missionaries and diplomats looked among the Mongols for Prester John.  To discuss these attempts, Silverberg essentially gives a history of the Mongol Empire.

The strongest part of the book is the last section on the Portuguese explorations of Africa and their “discovery” of the Kingdom of Ethiopia.  Thanks to the Ethiopians’ practice of not letting foreign visitors leave, it took decades for formal relations to be established.  Those decades were filled with bad luck and missed opportunities.  And when it was all over, it was the Europeans (Portuguese) who saved “Prester John” from the Moslems, and not the other way around.

Silverberg closes with the thought that unlike other Great Searches (El Dorado, the Seven Cities of Cibola, etc.), the search was a purely noble one.  Europe was only interested in meeting this great ruler; there was no thought of profit involved.  As such, it stands as a symbol of man’s enduring desire to Know.

NOTE:  The edition that was read for this review is now out of print, but Ohio University Press is releasing both hardcover and trade paperback editions.  Look for them in your local bookstore.

[from the December 1996 Seahorse]

Book review: Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, Mark C. Carnes, ed, reviewed by Richard the Poor

Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies

Mark C. Carnes, General Editor

Henry Holt and Company, New York

Copyright 1995, Agincourt Press

Reviewer: Master Richard the Poor of Ely

I’m sure that for most of us SCAdians, a favorite form of entertainment involves putting a “medieval” movie into the ol’ VCR (then sitting back and looking for errors).  But what do real historians have to say about how the movie industry presents history?

Carnes and the Society of American Historians have asked sixty authors and historians to comment on around one hundred movies related to their fields of expertise.  For example, Stephen E. Ambrose is the Boyd Professor of History at the University of New Orleans and the chairman of the National D-Day Foundation.  Who better, then, to write about The Longest Day (1962)?  And wouldn’t you like to know what paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould has to say about Jurassic Park (1993)?

The movies are discussed in the order of the history they present, from the Exodus (The Ten Commandments (1956)) to Watergate (All the President’s Men (1976)).  I must say that an appendix listing the films in the order they were made would have been a useful addition, but the editors don’t include one.  Each essay gives suggestions for further reading as well as the major cast and credits for the movie (they are all available on video).  Sidebars accompanying the essays flesh out the historical background.

The movies chosen are a diverse group.  In addition to the more “documentary” movies, some are included for their depiction of an era (Hester Street (1975), The Front Page (1931)), and others for what they tell about when they were made (Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Dr. Strangelove (1964)).

The essays in general grapple with the scope of artistic license.  How much accuracy can be sacrificed to make an entertaining movie?  It’s never been an easy question to answer.  For some years before he died in 1929, Wyatt Earp would hang around Hollywood kibbitzing with the cast and crew of Western movies, including a young John Ford.  After Ford released My Darling Clementine (1946), his version of “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”, a film historian asked him why, if he knew Earp, the movie wasn’t more accurate.  A flustered Ford asked him if he liked the film.  The historian answered sheepishly that it was one of his favorites.  Ford shot back, “What more do you want?”

To succeed as a historical movie, there are three requirements that stand out in all the essays.  First, if the events of the movie occur in a larger context, show that context.  Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) deals with one couple’s struggle to survive in west-central New York during the Revolutionary War.  But it fails to give any indication that the British campaign in the Mohawk valley was one of the most important campaigns of the war.  Second, try to capture the spirit of the era. Despite getting many of its facts completely wrong, 1776 (1972) succeeds because it accurately conveys the sense of the politicking of the Second Continental Congress during that hot, tense summer. Finally, if your major characters are real historical figures, get their true character right.  Capt. William Bligh of the H.M.S. Bounty (Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)) was a cruel, almost sadistic tyrant. Right?  Wrong!  The real Bligh was more inept than tyrannical, and it’s likely that the mutiny happened because he was simply incapable of leading his crew.  With a more correct depiction, the story could still have made a good movie.

SCAdians are likely to overlook this book since only a tenth of the movies included are what can be called “Period”.  But as we try to re-create history for entertainment, shouldn’t we give some attention to how others do the same thing?

[from the June 1996 Seahorse]