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Yo, La Peor De Todas (1990) follows the famous Mexican poet and nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Upon the arrival of the new Viceroy and Archbishop, her penchant for rebellion and individual thought arouses passion and disapproval in equal measure.
The Argentine director Maria Luisa Bemberg became an internationally acclaimed director with Camila, the story of a woman whose fight for love and equality made her ahead of her time. Released at a time when Argentina was undergoing a rebirth after the end of a long and brutal dictatorship, Bemberg’s period piece was not a stuffy bit of history filled with dated costumes but a story that modern Latin American women could relate to in ways they could not have foreseen. Bemberg often spoke about how her movies were meant to raise awareness of women’s plight throughout time. With any other director, you might expect the story about a Baroque Mexican nun to be a fact-filled bore, but with Bemberg, she drops the conventions of the traditional biopic to make a story of female oppression which transcends time.
Part of the timeless nature of this film comes from practical circumstances. Bemberg was given the opportunity to produce the film in Mexico but out of fear that she would lose control of the script decided to film in Argentina. Forgoing the authentic sets only usable in Mexico, the film is staged rather artificially with the use of shadows or somewhat simple architecture that seems out of touch with a Baroque Palace or convent. While Bemberg does not include overtly out-of-place clothing or dialogue, it is not overtly baroque either. In this way, modern women across Latin America can relate to the story of this unconventional woman who at first glance may seem to be a distant and unremarkable figure.
In order to make Sor Juana a symbol of modern womanhood, Bemberg decides to disregard some facts of her life and focus not just on her rebellion, but her secular rebellion. Bemberg’s Sor Juana is not a pious nun who blindly trusts the word of God as many audience members might have assumed. Bemberg shows the subversive nature of becoming a nun. It’s best exemplified in a conversation Sor Juana has with the Vicereine while, according to convent protocols, she sits behind bars. The Vicereine questions the need for them but Sor Juana insists that their appearance is deceptive. The convent is as free a place as exists. Similarly, her work as a nun allows her more freedom than the worldly married woman of the time could enjoy. In a flashback to her childhood, becoming a nun is a more acceptable option for Sor Juana who originally decided to dress up as a man so she could go to university. When her mother scolds her, she calmly declares that since she can’t dress up as a man, she will dress up as a nun.
In conversations with the Vicereine as well as her mother, Sor Juana reiterates how much freedom she has. She is not saddled with an uncaring husband and needy children. Instead, her children are her telescope, sundial, and books. Her voracious appetite for art is infectious and the rest of her convent takes part in plays she’s written and dress up in elaborate costumes and act out hilarious satires which even the Viceroy has to admit are nothing like any dramas in Madrid.
The visual contrast between Sor Juana’s feminine world and the outer masculine world is stark. The convent is introduced as a light place filled with joy, laughter, and thought. The opening scene of the film between the Viceroy and the Archbishop is shot in near darkness with an air of confrontation and violence. As a nun, Sor Juana did not run away from the real world or into the arms of patriarchal tradition, but to a world separate from this insidious violence. Her reasons for entering the convent were due to a secular need to gain knowledge away from the distractions of men. Her original goal was to become a lady-in-waiting and she even impressed the men and women in court with her knowledge of all things. However, her encounters with these men, one of whom kisses her to teach her something she can’t get in books, bore her. As a nun, she can learn more.
Her life may seem different, but her motivations are universal. Even when it’s difficult for Sor Juana to see, the Vicereine does. She shows that Sor Juana is locked in a convent while she a palace, Sor Juana must follow the rule of God and she protocol, and finally, she was married off at 20 and Juana entered the order at that same age. Their relationship opens discussion within modern audiences and gives birth to an alternate, maybe slightly fictional, story of Mexico. Early in the film, the Vicereine, absolutely taken with Sor Juana’s wit and passion, gives her a crown made of Quetzal feathers, the sacred bird of Mexico. Sor Juana dons it and jokingly refers to herself as Moctezuma accepting a gift from the crown. Their relationship, between colonizer and colonized, is actually one of collaboration and not of oppression. Though there is no historical evidence of it, Bemberg even asserts that this relationship was unfulfilled but romantic. Their story may not be accurate but it gives a glimpse at the kind of utopia born from close female relationships.
It also represents Bemberg’s own desire to understand the history of the woman’s struggle. Given the fact she gives the Vicereine the false name Maria Luisa (her own), Bemberg wants to insert herself into the story. When the Vicereine asks Sor Juana to take off her veil and subsequently kisses her, it uncovers Bemberg’s own need to unveil Sor Juana, the woman behind the habit. Her relationship opens new avenues in how we perceive Sor Juana. As the Vicereine declares, she is more poet than nun, more nun than woman. This even turns her love poems, commonly seen as exercises in form, into something meant for someone special, leading to the ire of the men around her. This machismo is one that has survived through the 17th century and to the present day in Latin America. When she gave a speech in England in 1992, Bemberg spoke of this Latin phenomenon saying, “These lands gave us a particular kind of man, a sad archetype called machismo, which is an attitude that blends boasting, indifference, misogyny, and stupidity.”
Many fingers can be pointed at the Archbishop for his cartoonish hatred of women, needing to burn incense to get rid of their smell after speaking to them, but it is the allies who create the most insidious forms of oppression. Sor Juana’s so-called male friends publish her writing without consent, unlike the Vicereine. According to Bemberg, the greatest crime man has committed is that they have “cannibalized womanhood and tried to speak for both.” They like Sor Juana’s voice but equally compliment her ability to remain quiet about things she should not read and her confessor even abandons her, later guiding her to get rid of her books as well as her own memories. It’s a psychological conditioning that is pressed upon all women. These little comments turn women into docile and guilty creatures. When the plague begins, nuns whip themselves begging for forgiveness. Even Sor Juana agrees to get rid of her books and in her final confession declares “yo, la peor de todas.” It’s a tragic and solitary end that could only be precipitated by the steady stream of control and criticism created by men too scared to help a friend.
But this is not a story about how men always win. The end credits reveal that Sor Juana became known as one of the most important poets of the Spanish Golden Age. We get a peak at this future when, on the same day that the Vicereine finds out she will be leaving Mexico, Sor Juana gives her final class to the convent schoolgirls. Her final lesson is that perception was not given in vain by God and that it was bestowed in equal measure upon men and women. Then, with clarity of thought, realizes she will not see the girls again and asks that they remember her. The double meaning of this lesson and this plea cannot be understated. Unable to declare her romantic love and appreciation to the Vicereine, she instead bestows a lesson on these young girls. Maybe they will be able to speak freely when their time comes. Maybe the next generation of women directors will be able to lift the veil even further.