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


By Irina Negrea

[1] The scene in which Juana Ines de la Cruz confesses to her "sinful" ways and asks for forgiveness from God and Church is constructed by Bemberg with precision and craftsmanship. Placed at the end of the movie (1:41:50), this scene offers at least two readings: a "mainstream" reading and a more subversive one, where a close analysis of the way in which the director uses the mise-en-scene (setting and lighting) yields a surprising conclusion. I intend to argue that Bemberg subverts history (or what is known of it) in order to bring to light a harsh critique of patriarchy and its controlling and confining spaces reserved for women. The mainstream reading goes along with what happened in the previous scene(s), i.e. Juana has confessed her "sins" to Father Miranda, and she has done her penance by parting with all her worldly goods, including her most prized possessions: her books. After the humiliation that she endured from Father Miranda, it is only to be expected that we see a self-humiliation, in writing, read in front of the whole convent, and signed in blood. However, the mise-en-scene suggests another, subversive, reading, that not only goes along with what Stavans says (that after Juana's death, her cell contained at least 100 books and other various "worldly" possessions), but it also undermines the whole ending of the movie (xliii).

[2] The viewer is supposed to realize the extent of pain that Juana goes through when she has to give up her writing and her study, and Bemberg intends to show how inhibitory and stifling the Catholic Church (and patriarchy) is for a woman of Juana's caliber. This is the reason why she decides to end the movie this way, in order to make her critique against patriarchy even more poignant, even if it "changes" history. Bemberg has reached her goal, and she ends the movie by informing the viewer that Juana is considered one of the greatest poets of her age, implying that in spite of the conditions in which she had to work, Juana is still a famous personality, and we remember the ones who persecuted her only because we remember Juana. The end of the movie represents Bemberg's direct address to the viewer, informing him/her of Juana. At the opposite pole, there is the abjuration scene, in which Bemberg addresses the viewer indirectly and communicates subversive messages.

[3] The mise-en-scene is used by the director to set the atmosphere: we are in the assembly room, and Juana is facing the nuns, Mother Ursula, and Father Miranda. The fixed position of the camera used by Bemberg throughout the whole scene amplify the stifling atmosphere that Juana had to endure and work in. One other important aspect of the scene resides in its contrast to another assembly scene at the beginning of the movie (0:04:55). In this latter scene, the "good" Abbess is happy to announce that the Viceroy wants to meet Juana, which causes a lot of animation among the nuns. The same scene contains a premonition of the hardships that will befall Mexico toward the end of the movie: we hear that a drought caused problems for the farmers and the convent itself has problems with collecting the rents and selling its products. We are prepared for the later calamities--especially the flood--that will fall on the country, but also for Juana's personal tragedy.

[4] The people in the room provide another sharp contrast to the scene of the first assembly. While in the first scene, the room was full of noisy, vociferous nuns, this time, there are less than half of the nuns left (as many of them died of the plague), and all of them are silent. None of them raises her voice to defend their sister, as they did in the other assembly. They have been successfully silenced and scared into submission by the new abbess, and the scene seems to suggest that the same is about to happen to Juana. A closer look at the mise-en-scene reveals that Bemberg encodes in it a message that is surprisingly contrary to what a superficial look might perceive. The position of the characters is very important: the nuns are seated on either side of Juana, while she is standing in between the rows of benches, facing the Abbess and Father Miranda, seated at the back of the room. The very first shot shows Juana with her back to the camera, standing, while all the other characters are facing it, but are situated at a certain distance from her, as if to dissociate themselves from the "sinner." The setting also suggests a trial, with the accused (Juana) facing her main accusers (the Abbess and the priest, as representatives of the Church).

[5] One of the key elements of the set is the enormous crucifix on the back wall. Bemberg's symbolism is at its best here, as her use of lighting and setting manages to convey one of the most important messages of the scene. First, the position of the crucifix (facing Juana directly) suggests that she can be identified with Christ, who was also persecuted for his beliefs, in the same way in which Juana was persecuted for pursuing her dreams and for her beliefs, too progressive for the age she lived in and for the Catholic Church. The same idea is conveyed by Juana's wound, after she breaks her glasses: her palm wound looks very much like one of Christ's stigmata, or rather like the way they are represented in Christian iconography. Bemberg seems to suggest that the pain and suffering Juana had to go through at the hands of her persecutors--the mental anguish--was similar to the--physical--pain that Christ had to endure when he was crucified. Another interesting detail is that Juana seems to address Christ directly, when she looks up from reading her abjuration document, and the text she is reading alludes to the pain that Christ endured on the Cross.

[6] The crucifix in the room bears another important message. The Abbess and the priest are positioned at its feet, as if they were the representatives of the Catholic Church, or the Mother and the Father, enjoying absolute power, given to them by God and the Fourth Commandment. However, Bemberg positions the two characters with their backs to the crucifix, while the crucifix itself is almost obliterated by shadow. This seems to suggest that Bemberg wants the viewer to understand that Mother Ursula and Father Miranda may be the official representatives of the Catholic Church, but they represent a Church that has completely forgotten or misinterpreted the true nature of the compassion and love in Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. Herself a Catholic, Bemberg subtly attacks the bigotry of the Catholic Church and its intolerance of women in this setting.

[7] Lighting plays an important role as well in the mise-en-scene. Apart from the crucifix that is placed on the dark side of the room, the Abbess and the priest are not in the spotlight either. Rather, the light comes from the right side of the set and that makes them have half of their faces in light, while the other half remains in the dark. The only close-up that we get of the two characters and the way the light is positioned on them is when Juana mentions the word "pagan" in reading her apology. It is interesting that Bemberg chooses that particular moment to cut to Mother Ursula and Father Miranda. What she wants to encode is similar with the previous analysis of the crucifix setting: they are the ones who accuse and persecute Juana because their expectations of what a nun should do and be were not met by her, and they are the ones who decide how a nun should behave and what to think, not God, nor Christ. They (and the Church) distort the message of love that Christ brought to humankind and turn it into a discourse of humiliation, of submission, and control, especially directed against women, so they are also the ones who are "pagan," who do not understand the true message of Christ.

[8] The subversive message of resistance to the oppressive structures that Bemberg encodes in the mise-en-scene does not stop here. The main character of the movie, Sor Juana, is reading one of the most important documents of her life, or so the viewer is led to believe at this point. In contrast with the sparse lighting on the set, Juana has a spotlight on her face, and while the rest of the colors in the room are very cold, her face represents the only warm color used on the set. This is enhanced by the black and white habit and veil that frame her face. There are some close shots of Juana's face, as if to provide the viewer with a warm reference in the cold world of the convent. Although her former vitality is gone, and her face seems to show humility and submission, it also shows pain and suffering at the thought of her penance. It is interesting that while she is reading, she raises her eyes from the document three times, and she seems to look directly at Christ. Her eyes do not contain any of the humility she is talking about. Her eyes (and the spotlight reflected in them) convey the pain at having to part with what she loved most in this world, and her look to Christ is one of an equal to another equal: she understands that she has to give up her possessions in order to keep safe, so she does that, but she does not give up her beliefs. Another empowering device used by Bemberg is the voice-over that starts the scene: in the beginning, all that the viewer sees is an overview of the room, while Juana's back is turned away from the camera. She starts reading the document, and the viewer has to guess that the figure who is with the back to the camera is Juana, and that the voice belongs to her. Bemberg is suggesting that Juana is still powerful, and that she has not been successfully silenced.

[9] After she signs the document, Juana disappears from the frame, and for a few seconds, the screen is completely black. The director wants the reader to see the image of the black intellectual void to which Juana is condemned by the Church. She is supposed to disappear into obscurity, forever silenced and forever submissive. This shot brings to mind the last part of the movie, where Bemberg gives us the information about Juana's death (another kind of disappearance), but also of her everlasting fame, despite the Church's attempt to keep her in the dark. It is Bemberg's way of suggesting that all the attempts to contain this extraordinary woman failed in the end, and that she will always find a way out from the dark through her writings.

[10] There are three more elements to be analyzed in this scene: Juana's words, Juana's use of her glasses, and Juana's blood, used to sign her abjuration. First, Juana's words seem to suggest that she is completely submitting to what Father Miranda sentenced her. The abjuration seems complete. However, OctavioPaz claims in his biography of Sor Juana that all the expressions that Juana uses in her document are part of a discourse of self-humiliation widely used in those times. They are "devout formulas" that are traditional for that age, and they do not necessarily reflect the true feelings of the writer (Paz 461). This includes the formula at the end of the document, "Yo, la peor de todas." ("I, the worst of all [women]). However, I disagree with Paz in this respect. By calling herself "the worst of all women," Juana tries to achieve an important goal: she wants to prove that she is not an exception, or an accident; Juana wants to show that, if given the opportunity, other women would reach the same level of intellectual development and even surpass it (since she is "the worst"). An important feminist manifesto is encoded in these words, and Bemberg knows to put these words at the end, in order to suggest the important message they encode.

[11] The next element that needs analysis are Juana's glasses. According to film critic Mary Ann Doane, glasses are used in movies to encode certain messages from the director to the viewer. They symbolize intelligence, clairvoyance, accurateness of vision (50). When worn by a woman, they represent an "ideological threat" to patriarchy, an active look that may denounce (as Juana did) the machinery of control that is used on women. By breaking the glasses, Juana is trying to suggest that she is renouncing the gaze and all that comes with it. It is almost impossible to "rescue" this symbolic action from a feminist point of view, but Juana's next step vindicates the breaking of the glasses. She signs the document of her abjuration in her blood.

[12] At first sight, it seems that Juana's action seals her fate, and that the symbolism of signing her abjuration in blood would suggest to the reader that she is really giving up everything and she completely submits to the control of the Church. However, the significance of Juana's blood on the document goes farther than that. Bemberg makes sure to attract the viewer's attention to the words written in blood--not her name, but "I, the worst of all [women]." The underlying message of these words has been already explained. Juana inscribes herself and her femininity on the paper, as text, and what is more, she does it in blood. Feminine blood has always been associated with "bad" blood, i.e., menstrual blood. A passage from the Bible is edificatory in this respect: "If a woman has a discharge, and the discharge from her body is blood, she shall be set apart seven days; and whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening. Everything that she lies on during her impurity shall be unclean; also everything that she sits on shall be unclean. Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until evening" (Leviticus 15. 19-21).

[13] The perception of women as "the Other" comprises this patriarchal view of feminine blood and encodes the deep fear that feminine powers have always elicited from the male order, and with them, the attempts to control all the fluids of a woman's body--they have to be contained within patriarchy and thus controlled. In this context, Juana's blood on a document that claims her abjuration and on a document addressed to the Church is the supreme defiance of the patriarchal authority. A Catholic herself, Bemberg is certainly familiar with the connotations of feminine blood, and she chooses to end one of the most important scenes in the film with Juana's blood as a text, in order to suggest to the reader that Juana's abjuration is not total, and that she has not lost her views and convictions to the bigotry of a church that is so afraid of women and of what they represent. History tells us that Juana never gave up: there were books in her cell after she died. Bemberg wants to sharpen her critique of patriarchy and shows us an apparently defeated Juana at the end of the movie, juxtaposed to the information she provides to us about Juana being considered one of the greatest poets of her age. Even if the film allows a "mainstream" reading that does not give Juana too much space to rebel, the subversive messages encoded in the scene of abjuration are enough to prove that Bemberg did not see Juana as a defeated woman; on the contrary, the director seems to suggest that even if the defeat seems complete, there are always means to subvert the insidious controlling machinery of patriarchy, and that can be done from within the institutions devised to subdue and control women: the convent in the case of Juana, and mainstream film directed by men in the case of Maria Luisa Bemberg.