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Films >> Yo, La Peor De Todas (I, The Worst of All) (1990) >> Issue Essay >>

History in Film: Real or Just Reel?

By Audrey Gibbs and Nicole Robertson


[1] Who owns history? When portraying a historical figure, specifically a female figure (of which there is a distinct lack due to either scarcity of existence or insufficiency of acknowledgment in society), film has a responsibility to accurately represent the historical figure whose reputation is at stake. As a medium relating past to present, film possesses the incredible capacity to take ownership of history; the director holds the key to making history real or reel. Film has the power to exalt or distort historical figures to fit the mold of present day ideals. Maria Luisa Bemberg, director of Yo, la Peor de Todas (I, the Worst of All), embraces history and film in an attempt to bring enlightenment to the public. However, this movie has yet to infiltrate mainstream western culture in the United States or abroad. In contrast, Luc Besson, director of The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, manipulates the story of Joan of Arc to fit the demands of a culture that feeds on action-packed, blood-gushing movies. We will take a look at both these directors, the films, how the films present their characters, what manipulation in film does to influence people's idea of the historical figures, and how the movies are created to fit present-day ideals.

History of Directors and Film Intro

[2] Herself involved in a field not known for women of her time, Argentinean director Maria Luisa Bemberg tackles the biography of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a narrative much like her own. Growing up during the 1920's in upper-class Buenos Aires, Bemberg never acquired a high school or college diploma but received an informal education under the guidance of a governess. Surviving in an age in which men still held the dominant hand, Bemberg lived out the first three decades of her adult life a married woman raising four children and suppressing a lifelong dream of delving into film. But at the age of 56, after going through a divorce and becoming a grandmother, Bemberg caves in to the "curse of an inquiring mind" and creates films that document "women that are vertical, autonomous, independent, thoughtful, courageous" (Bemberg as quoted in Bach). After having her life's path determined for her by her controlling father and after being stifled by her older brothers, Bemberg is able to relate to Sor Juana's struggle to find an open forum for her voice to be heard. It is this relation between the character and the director that allows Bemberg to strive to create a film that reveals not a god-like figure but a courageous woman who overcomes sexual prejudice to become a true hero.

[3] In order to make the intellectual wiles of Sor Juana more appealing to an audience unaware of her poetic prose, scholars who study this atypical nun put her on a pedestal, praising her as the "Tenth Muse" and the "Mexican Phoenix." Biographers who retell her story paint a picture of an almost god-like figure that breathes life into rare poetry and drama no man ever before saw or heard. However, the portrait that these scholars paint is rather distant from the truth in that Sor Juana is a selfish, lying woman who impersonates a nun and uses the convent to achieve her own ends. In short, she was only human. It is not her "heavenly persona" that allows her to achieve hero status but her persistence through her setbacks. In order to gain entrance into the sisterhood, she lies about her parentage, claiming that her parents were married and that her birth date was November 12, 1651 (Arenal 4). It is well known that she is an illegitimate child whose life began three years before the date she relays to the Church. Lying being the least of her offenses, Sor Juana states most openly that she chooses a lifestyle that is most "repugnant to [her] nature" in order to achieve her goals (Ramiréz 58). And, after taking sacred vows to give her life to GOD, Juana admits to living a religious life without religion, neglecting to "spend long hours on her knees either praying, scrubbing floors and other 'sisterly' pursuits . . . [as] her motives for moving into the convent were opportunistic" (Ramiréz 61). Sor Juana's only purpose for entering the convent was to further her own goals of finding a place where she could write and develop her intellect, a feat much more human than divine. Sor Juana is successful in achieving her goals because she is relentless in her pursuit, a quality much admired among those deemed worthy to be called heroes. Nevertheless, instead of concentrating on her prized virtue of determination, novelists and biographers choose to cover this side of Sor Juana and claim that she is no less than divine.

[4] Luc Besson, born in France, directed and wrote films such as Nikita, The Fifth Element, and The Big Blue that offer little or no reflection of history. So why did this French director elect to make his first historical representation of French patron saint Joan of Arc? There is little about his past that indicates a desire to bring historical figures to film as does Bemberg. He grew up in France and traveled with his parents who were scuba instructors. He fell in love -- first with the ocean and dolphins and then with film. Perhaps there are many reasons why Luc Besson decided to make a film about Joan of Arc, but what reasons can there be for slandering a historical figure beyond reason?

[5] If Besson tries to offer a possible alternative reading of Joan of Arc, he does himself and all who the view the movie a disservice by adding to the film inaccuracies that distort whatever viewpoint to which he might subscribe. E. Gellner states, "Anything must be true before it can significantly claim other merits. Without truth, all else is worthless." Luc Besson, director of The Messenger: the Story of Joan of Arc, decides to mold history to fit the visual wants rather than the historical needs of our culture. There have been numerous attempts to capture this young woman and bring her life to film. In 1924 Joan Diener created a silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, which is still said to be one of the most accurate portrayals based on the documents made during her trial. However, media, church, and censors of 1924 still forced Diener to edit the film. "The film was re-edited a few times to appease the Catholic Church and also some censors during the late 20's and early 1930's" (Jarmick). What part of history did our society refuse to acknowledge in the 20's and 30's?

[6] These films -- Joan of Arc (the first film produced about her, by Georges Melies, 1899), Joan of Arc: France's Call for Arms (1996 documentary), Joan of Arc: Soul on Fire (In Search of History series, aired on A&E 1998), Joan of Arc (movie made for television, directed by Christian Duguay, 1999), The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (Besson, 2000), and, finally, in progress, a movie directed by Ronald Maxwell -- all attempt to retell history and all fall short in some aspect of telling the facts (with the exception of the still-to-be-made version by Maxwell). Yet no matter how grand the portrayal, each movie seems to fall short of the story in its entire truth. Somehow, making such historical representations is filling a personal or societal agenda. Luc Besson's film The Messenger is an example of taking history and a historical figure, disregarding "truth," and making a film fit into the mold of present-day ideology. What makes the film more disturbing is that our culture has so few female heroes to look up to, and movies that distort history can turn a proclaimed hero into just another crazy woman.

[7] Apparently our society finds Joan of Arc compelling yet lacks the ability to tell the whole truth of her story. Looking at the dates of the Joan of Arc films, it appears that there is a persistent need to publicize and recognize this female historical figure. But why not multiple films on Sor Juana de La Cruz? Sor Juana's life did not involve bloodthirsty battles; her battles existed with a patriarchal society and the Church. A film about an intellectually gifted woman might have been popular in Bemberg's day when "intellectual women" were a rare find; however, a movie of this caliber does not satisfy the public's thirst in a culture where action and sex, blood, and battle are coveted. Yet, even multiple films on Joan of Arc, whose life did involve bloody, violent battles, cannot produce a story closer to fact and farther from fiction. These two women, for all their determination and heroism, deserve an accurate place in the archives of our collective history.

How Film Manipulates Purpose of Character

[8] For a society more eager to learn history through visual film than the written word, directors and producers of factually-based films have a responsibility to research in depth the historical recollection they commit to film. In Yo la Peor de Todas (I, the Worst of All), Bemberg accomplishes what should be the task of every filmmaker in that she produces the most historically accurate picture concerning her subject. Bemberg borrows information from various sources to compile an accurate view of Sor Juana, without indulging too much of her own personal opinion into the script. First-time viewers ignorant about the history of this woman poet-scholar can learn and comprehend the struggles she faced in having her work published and can grasp some understanding as to the extent of her vast knowledge. Though it may not be appealing to individuals in the time frame during which the movie is first released, Bemberg's film remains historically accurate to the life of Sor Juana and captures the very essence of what it meant to be a female intellectual in a male-dominated 17th century Mexico.

[9] One might think it strange for a French man to influence a generation's perception through film by reducing a patron saint to no more than a raving mad woman. Yet, for some reason, Besson feels the need to manipulate history and documented fact to cause a people to re-evaluate who they call a hero and why. The film manipulates Joan's purpose of defeating the English by creating the motivation of revenge rather than divine intervention. Joan's quest to defeat the English (according to Besson) is fueled by the graphic rape and murder of her sister, which, incidentally, is a purely fictional part of the movie. Yet Besson chose to insert this event in the life of this woman to portray Joan as self-driven, not divinely chosen.

[10] Besson's portrayal of Joan of Arc manipulates this heroine like no other film it follows. From the distortion of fact -- placing battle scenes in places they never occurred, creating a rape and murder that never existed, and placing a male (Dustin Hoffman) in the role of Joan's conscience in order to question Joan's true motivations -- Besson is clearly trying to make the point that Joan of Arc was not divinely sent. However, in so doing, Besson also makes the point that what we know to be "historical fact" cannot always be taken at face value. To question history is a positive and necessary way to discover the whole story. Filmmakers are constantly testing the idea of "truthful representation" as seen in such films as 1492: Conquest of Paradise. In a scene analysis of 1492, Rachael Hansen and John Marlow address the director's questioning of previous portrayals of Christopher Columbus. Their essay is an attempt to call attention to the re-writing of history and to raise questions of our past representations of this American hero. History can never be relived in its entirety; some facts and events will always be lost to those in the present and future. However, it is our responsibility to search and think as thoroughly as possible to give accurate representations of people and events. Those who portray history on film have an even greater responsibility to, at the very least, research the documents that are available and attempt to relay those facts as accurately as possible.

How Manipulations Affect Individual Perceptions of History

[11] One must ask the question: what does the manipulation of historical events and characters do to people's idea of history? The answer is not a simple one. For most people, history is a painful subject. Endless dates, names, countless facts, and eras can be daunting to manage. Most people only want to learn it all once, and then maybe remember it, maybe forget it. What most people don't do is question the facts taught. It is easier to believe what is said than to research and discover the truth for oneself. It is easier for people to accept than to fight against the norm. Our American history is highly diluted; yet we rarely search to find the missing parts that were never taught. It is easier to see a movie about Gettysburg than to read the countless books and decide what parts of the story are fabricated. It is easier to watch a movie and remember its events rather than say you know something about history. It's more exciting and gratifying to see a battle on the big screen than to read about one.

[12] We no longer live in a society that believes in reading; now most learning is accomplished through observations. Children watch movies and learn, making it more difficult to decipher between reality and the special effects of Hollywood. A veteran director and screenwriter in Hollywood, Ronald F. Maxwell states: "Luc Besson attempts to prove what even the best prosecuting clerics of her day could not: that Joan was a demented, misled, hysterical, confused and guilt-ridden phony. In those days the power structure was the Church, nowadays the multi-national corporations Gaumont and Sony" (Maxwell). Besson goes out on a limb by portraying Joan as insane in this film that will turn away young minds because of its R-rated status. Those who know little or nothing about this woman will leave the theatre believing Joan of Arc was a mad woman seeking revenge for acts done to her personal family rather than a dignified young lady fighting for the rights of her countrymen. The general public has little aspiration to exit a movie that claims historical basis and search libraries for inconsistencies. They will walk away believing what was seen, accurate or not.

[13] What Besson does with Joan of Arc is challenge every other film made concerning her story. He also challenges a good deal of textual writings and historical documents as he is confident that most viewers will not confirm which battles actually occurred or verify whether or not Joan had a sister named Catherine who was really raped and murdered. Yet, the only way he found to question Joan's life was to take history and distort its known facts. To question based on evidence is one thing, to question based on imagination is another. Marnia Warner, a scholar on Joan of Arc, writes: "Joan of Arc is the center of a story so famous it transcends the media or the forms that have transmitted it: she is a heroine of history" (Warner 3). How, then, did Besson find motivation to question and alter Joan's life and why? If she really is "a heroine of history," Besson set out to destroy that image of "historic heroine" and replace that image with one of a psychotic who kills in the name of GOD.

How Films are Created to Fit Present Day Ideals

[14] Though Bemberg captures the essence of Sor Juana's struggle to be a "professional" woman at a time when the concept was unfathomable, the plot of the film does little to entice an audience in tune with the current mobility of women in the social hierarchy. Maria Bemberg directs this movie coming from being one of the few women left who remember when females were nothing more than housewives and when a "professional" woman meant a secretary or a teacher working for a male boss. Nowadays, women are accustomed to holding positions as company CEO's, doctors, and public officials. In the progression towards equality between the sexes, "women in business" is the most recent plateau attained by this accomplished generation. Bemberg's film biography comes to a day and age when people are more concerned about sex and violence than intellectual heroism. Though her movie speaks earnestly about the struggles of working women, the advertisers for the film must print in bold letters "Lesbian passion seething behind convent walls" to encourage today's audience to give this film a closer look (click here or on the picture for a video by Gibbs and Robertson relating to the lesbianism). At the time of its release, women were fixated on how to overcome their next hurdles, such as getting women in the military. In 1996, one year after Yo la Peor de Todas appeared in select theaters in the United States, America witnessed an explosion of women forcing their way into all-male military academies after the elite academies refused to open their doors to female candidates. With events like the dawn of such professional sports as women's basketball, boxing, and wrestling, along with movies such as G.I. Jane and Mulan, Bemberg's story of a female intellectual giant gets lost among the people's search to find a heroine that can stand up to defend her country with the sword instead of defending herself with her pure wit.

[15] With the exception of The Messenger, each of the Joan of Arc movies produced in the 1990s fulfills the culture's desire for a powerful female historical hero. "A story lives in relation to its tellers and its receivers; it continues because people want to hear it again, and it changes according to their tastes and needs" (Warner 3). At this time our culture is in need of female heroes, but the call is limited to mostly young heroines who fought, not with her words, but with her fists. Joan aptly led men based on the belief that she was sent from God. Likewise, Sor Juana used the church as her platform to further her purpose. Yet, our society continues to search for a military woman instead of an intellectual nun. Mainstream film will always alter history to fill the seats in the theatre and the pockets of the producers rather than to enrich society's mind with quality information. Movies such as Sor Juana will remain outside the realm of popular culture because westernized society has passed the time when it was eager for female heroes whose lives were purely intellectual. Today, women are in college, and they hold positions in jobs they never had access to before (not that there isn't still a long way to go for equality). The intellectual woman is not such a revelation as she was in the 17th century. What fascinates American minds nowadays is a woman who can lead men into battle, thereby having a strong, visible hand in altering history.


[16] There are still people who search to use film as a tool of destruction, as seen in The Messenger. Where other movies attempt to clarify a seemingly distorted history (Columbus, Cabeza de Vaca), Besson's film sets out to create a misrepresentation of known facts and change a people's perception of an individual. How, then, are we as viewers to trust the media? What do we do when we encounter a film such as Sor Juana that attempts to tell a historical story?

We know now that we cannot always trust the stories we are presented with. Instead, we as viewers must do our homework. It is essential that we always question the intentions of the director and closely examine the details of history we have available. Filmmakers will only produce what they believe the public wants to see. If we show the filmmakers and other Hollywood moguls that we want to see accurate historical films, then that's what we'll get. Nevertheless, it is rather unrealistic to believe that society will suddenly rise up in arms, storm the movie studios, and demand historically accurate films. There are many historical figures who, though worthy, will never be brought to the silver screen because their stories do not seem intriguing enough to pack the local movie houses. Unfortunately, we cannot separate ourselves from the demands of society; we too want to see a movie that captures our attention and not always our intellect. We would not have even been exposed to a movie about Sor Juana had the film not been a requirement for this college course. There are many female heroes lost in the closed books of our past. Many of those covers are only opened by scholars and remain hidden from the mind of the public. And, unfortunately, many of these books will remain closed to the public unless those with the power to change our minds through film will grab hold of the keys and unlock the door to our past.

Arenal, Electa, and Amanda Powell. The Answer/ La Respuesta. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1994.

Bach, Caleb. "Maria Luis Bemberg Tells the Untold." Americas 46 (Mar/Apr 1994): 20.

Ramirez, Susan E. "I, the Worst of All: The Literary Life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz." Based on a True Story: Latin American History at the Movies. Ed. Donald F. Stevens. Wilmington: SR Books, 1997. 47-62.