Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

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

Light Inside the Darkness

By Audrey Gibbs and Nicole Robertson

[1] Like the entire film, the scene in which Sor Juana indulges the company of the clergy and scholars in the dark quarters of the convent is meaningfully constructed down to the minutest detail. This scene up for analysis gives hidden clues as to the conclusion of the movie where Sor Juana experiences a shift in character, when she, as Irina Negrea says, "confesses to her 'sinful' ways and asks for forgiveness from GOD and Church" (1:41:50). In this earlier portion of film (28:04), Sor Juana's actions reveal to the viewer a manner of self-indulgence, a trait from which nuns vow to absolve themselves during the wedding ceremony to the Church. Bemberg takes this character trait and uses it to portray Sor Juana as an atypical nun, since she represents the opposite of the model woman of her time. An accomplished writer, poet, and scholar, Sor Juana defies most boundaries set by the male-dominated secular world in the 17th century. She paves the way for women to experience contentment outside traditional roles. Her bravery and thirst for knowledge still do not come without personal torment; but it is the very gifts for which she is tormented that carry her through her suffering. For this, Sor Juana is known to this day as one of the most influential women of her time.

[2] In order to fully appreciate the statement the director makes about life inside the cold convent walls, Bemberg precedes this encounter with a scene that, at first glance, seems rather out of place (27:11), in which the Vicereine is sitting outside for a miniature portrait, while she is reading one of the love poems that Juana has written for her. Upon further analysis, however, it becomes apparent that the juxtaposition of the bright blue outdoor sky and the dark grey indoors in the following scene highlights the dismal, detached life inside the convent walls. The abrupt change in environment displays the contrast between the freedom of women on the outside compared to the imprisonment of women living in the convent.

[3] Although Bemberg portrays life in the convent as prison-like, Sor Juana is able to find a sense of freedom among her writings and worldly treasures. Bemberg illustrates this sense of freedom by concentrating a light onto Sor Juana's manuscripts at the onset of the scene. In the rest of the film, the only times at which viewers are unaware of the bars that line Sor Juana's cell are when she is illuminated by the presence of her "children." Just as the true light of the outdoors acts as a symbol of freedom to those outside the convent walls, the fabricated light on Sor Juana's documents creates the semblance of freedom within the confines of the convent walls.

[4] This false impression of independence gives Sor Juana a self-confidence that endangers her life. Although she is free to read her books and write her poetry in the privacy of her cell, man still has her under control when she comes in contact with the outside world. The bars come back up when male outsiders enter her presence; yet she acts as if she does not notice the imposing bars. She speaks freely to members of the clergy but is quickly reminded of her inferior status as one scholar dismisses her insight by changing the subject. Despite this, Sor Juana relinquishes the freedoms of the outside world to explore "intellectual freedom" and continues to ignore the bars of class and gender that attempt to ban her from the elite world of intellect reserved only for men.

[5] The extensive primping ritual at the beginning of this scene demonstrates how Sor Juana, though "more nun than woman," still possesses the instincts of a "natural" woman in that she, too, is highly concerned with her appearance when out in public. The long preparation reminds the audience of a high school girl taking great pains to look perfect for a big date. Sor Juana is in no rush to meet her visitors; she carefully grooms herself to be presentable in front of those who've come to call on her. The viewer catches a glimpse of Sor Juana's wedding band, showing her marriage to the church; yet, in the course of her preparations, Sor Juana overshadows the simple wedding band with a large, gaudy ring symbolizing how her intellectual desires take precedence over her religious duties. Critics and historians place much emphasis on the fact that the Sor Juana portrayed in the movie is an atypical woman of her time because of her desire to expand her intellect. Nevertheless, she is still a woman who craves the attention and approval of both her peers and superiors.

[6] In addition to serving as a reminder of her femininity, the dark lighting in the early portion of this section of film shows the darkness of Sor Juana's world without the enlightenment of her books and instruments of learning. The lighting also represents the constant state of the lives of women who are not blessed with the gift of knowledge. Sor Juana and her servant are in darkness during the course of her feminine rituals. It is only when we jump to the next part of the scene that Sor Juana is again illuminated by the fulfillment of knowledge.

[7] In this next portion of film, the camera is positioned at a low angle some distance away from the characters. Bemberg calls attention to the status separation of men and women through the use of lighting. We go from the comfort of her private cell to the meeting area where the five men are sitting in the open, while Sor Juana is trapped like a circus animal in a cage. Her purpose in this gathering is to entertain her guests. These men see a woman with an aptitude such as Sor Juana's as a novelty to be toyed with rather than a human being to be respected and taken seriously. When Sor Juana attempts to add insight to the conversation, one of the elite cuts her off and requests that she perform for those gathered. Regardless of how she relates intellectually, Sor Juana will never be considered equal to these men. Not only do the physical bars between them separate her, but she also resides outside their laughter. From the silence of Sor Juana's chambers comes the booming laughter into the meeting room. Everyone is laughing except Sor Juana, who eases back in her armchair, submissively sipping her tea.

[8] As the scene progresses, we hear one of the men begin to speak, after which Sor Juana replies in disagreement. Her verbal disagreement symbolizes her constant conflict with the world outside her books and secular objects. Bemberg once again utilizes the spotlight to emphasize Sor Juana's isolation from the men sitting in darkness, portraying her as a pioneer for the intellectual advancement of women. Nevertheless, Sor Juana continues to face opposition in her pursuit of educational equality between the sexes. When she voices her opinion, the controlling powers do their best to manipulate her flow of thought to resemble their own by quickly altering the focus of the discussion. Sor Juana states, in reference to Phaeton, "Knowledge is always a transgression. All the more so for a woman. Ask the Archbishop!" This statement causes a brief moment of tension as the men recognize the validity of this statement. However, rather than address the insight of the declaration, the male scholars assume control of the situation, calling upon Sor Juana to perform the tercets on call for the entertainment of the crowd. The men find Sor Juana's input valuable only when they determine the topic; they wish to be entertained by Sor Juana, not enlightened.

[9] In the course of their discussion, the interpretation of the Greek mythical character Phaeton becomes a point of contention. Phaeton was the offspring of the sun, Helios, and the nymph Clymene. Phaeton was so highly impressed at his father's ability to guide his golden chariot around the earth that he borrowed the golden chariot without permission in an attempt to do the same. But the steeds that control the chariot prove to be too much for Phaeton, and, instead of following the path of the sun, Phaeton plunges into the earth, burning Mt. Oetna and drying the Libyan Desert. Before he can destroy the entire universe, Zeus kills Phaeton with his lightning bolt while Phaeton's sisters (the Heliades) weep amber tears marking their loss. To the male population, Phaeton's short-lived adventure represents imprudence and lack of reasoning. On the other hand, for Sor Juana, the adventure proves to be one of intellectual curiosity: a daring thirst for knowledge. This tale offers a helpful parallel to Sor Juana's life story.

[10] Both Phaeton and Sor Juana encounter difficulty because of a drive to satisfy their burning curiosity. With Phaeton, his downfall occurs as a result of his own inability to conquer the task he set out to perform. In other words, he fails because of his own stubbornness. In Sor Juana's case, her troubles develop when those in power refuse to grant her the opportunity to express herself as she chooses. Sor Juana is fully able to develop literary criticisms and theological debates exceeding the mental capacity of her male superiors. Yet it is the pride of those male superiors that will not allow Sor Juana to openly share and develop her knowledge to its full capacity. Just as Phaeton's sisters cry at the loss of their brother, Sor Juana's sisters and admirers cry tears of sorrow when they believe the scholars silenced one of the brightest minds of the 17th century.


If the sea's dangers were considered,

No one would ever leave port,

Should one foresee the perils,

No one would dare

Nor the fighting bull provoke…

This particular poem is skillfully placed in the middle of this scene to articulate the dangerous, perilous path upon which critics force Sor Juana as a result of her choice to pursue knowledge. She braves the tumultuous seas of an intellectual world completely controlled by the male gender. She is given the gift of knowledge which, for a woman, is more a test of endurance. If Sor Juana considered the dangers of existing as a woman scholar in the early 17th century, she might not have stood in opposition of a church who put to death those with contradictory ideals. Despite warnings of friends and the Vicerine, Sor Juana persists with her writings. The overwhelming temptation of a fulfilling wealth of knowledge makes it easier for Sor Juana to forsake the consequences of disobedience. Had she stopped to consider the dangers, her life's work would be lost.

[12] After this last line of the tercet, the camera drifts away from Sor Juana and concentrates on the Vicerine's grand entrance while soft, romantic music plays in the background. As Sor Juana declares, "If of the fiery beast the unleashed fury were pondered…", the object of her "fiery, beast-like passion" enters the room in a majestic blue gown. The music sets a sudden romantic tone to the scene, implying the meeting of two lovers. The next camera shot is a close-up of Sor Juana's face shadowed for an instant before she steps forward into a flood of light. Then the Vicerine steps into that same pool of light so that only the two women are illuminated. The look on Sor Juana's face is one of deep longing, as if staring into the soul of her lover without being able to touch her. As the two women come face to face, it is evident that they long to say more than they dare as they both inhale as if to continue the conversation. It is imperative that they do not, as there would indeed be grave consequences including loss of life should either party neglect to ponder the "unleashed fury" of the fiery beast. It is bad enough being woman and intellectual but to add Mexican-lesbian-nun infatuated with married-Spanish-royalty to the list of transgressions would certainly bring about action from the church. The viewer, nevertheless, can sense that the relationship between Sor Juana and the Vicerine is more than just friendship.

[13] The dramatic presentation of the extravagant headdress is accented by its exotic blue color in an environment of dull and neutral shades. The exchange of gifts also reinforces the idea of a courtship between the two women. Sor Juana writes poetry speaking of their love, while the Vicerine provides gifts customary of her royal upbringing. The headdress the Vicerine presents is made from quetzal feathers which come from Mexico's most treasured bird. The feathers of this sacred bird were extremely valuable and used as currency by the natives. When the Spaniards first landed in Mexico, they burnt down storehouses full of these feathers in search of gold. The headdress presented to Sor Juana represents the invaluable gift of a love for knowledge that she possesses. In trying to take that gift from her, the men are trying to silence the very pride and glory of 17th century Mexico, because they do not recognize the full value of what lies before them. The men do not recognize this precious gift because they are too concerned with preserving their status. When the first scholar in the scene comments that the feathers come from "our" bird, Bishop Fernandez is quick to remind him with a nod that the bird is a native of Mexico and is therefore beneath the native Spaniards, just as Sor Juana is less than they as a woman and a native Mexican. The bird's feathers, nevertheless, are still beautiful to behold, especially when one can hold them in the palm of his or her hands and manipulate them in a way that all can enjoy. In the same way, Sor Juana is treated as a commodity that only brings enjoyment when manipulated for the entertainment of the group.

[14] The scene closes with Sor Juana placing the crown on her head and mocking the surrender of Moctezuma lying "prostrate at the conqueror's feet." Given the information we are left with at the end of the film, it is not ironic that Bemberg should interject this scenario into her well-crafted film. According to Spanish tale, the Aztec king Moctezuma hands his kingdom and all its riches over to Hernando Cortés upon Cortés' arrival to their great land. Conversely, the tale of the Aztecs concerning this same event is rather dissimilar. Stone carvings were found of what is believed to be sketches of the Aztecs' account of the events of that fateful day, when, according to the drawings, Moctezuma invites Cortés up to the palace and Cortés sends his troops to invade the city in a battle that lasted at least three days. The story behind these seven or so words provides an indication of things to come in the movie. According to Spanish authority, Sor Juana completely renounces all her worldly possessions and vows to "never in [her] own defense take up the pen again." Yet, according to the director's notes at the conclusion of the film, we see this "promise" is nothing more than a façade to get the Spanish ministry off her back so she can concentrate on her writings, as over 100 manuscripts were found in her cell after her death. Bemberg cleverly reveals to the audience that Sor Juana never planned to discontinue her writing.

[15] Keeping in mind the cliché "actions speak louder than words." it is Sor Juana's actions in the final moments of this scene that the audience must pay attention to in order to understand the ending. At the end of the scene where Sor Juana puts the feathery crown on her head, she bends her knees and says that she "lies prostrate at the conqueror's feet." In order to lie prostrate, one must be flat on the floor. If she were flat on the floor, she would have to surrender her crown of knowledge since it would fall from her head. Yet the only sign of surrender comes from the words she utters. And before she can even finish the words, laughter consumes her. How foolish to believe she would willingly surrender the one aspect of life that makes her happy! The men in the background laugh because she looks foolish with the feathery crown. A crown of such worth and importance should be supported atop the broad shoulders of a man rather than the incapable head of a woman. Nevertheless, the joke is on the men who believe they can force Sor Juana to surrender the mind that truly belongs only to her. At the conclusion of the film, the church leaders are successful in confiscating the symbol of her most prized possession; even so, they can never destroy the real thing.

Doane, Mary Ann. "Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator." Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Ed. Patricia Erens. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. 41-58.

Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana or, The Traps of Faith. Cambridge: The Bellknap Press of Harvard UP, 1988.

Stavans, Ilan. "Introduction." Margaret Sayers-Peden, translator and ed. Poems, Protest, and A Dream: Selected Writings, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. New York: Penguin, 1997.