In "Mad Love" (Juana La Loca), veteran Spanish writer-director Vicente Aranda
subjects a remote historical figure to modern-day psychological treatment. Joan of Castile (1479-1555) has gone down in history as "Joan the Mad". Obsessively jealous of her husband -- and we can pretty much guess what the problem was when we learn he was known as Philip the Handsome -- Joan was devastated by his early death. Behaving erratically before and after Philip's death, Joan was confined for the remainder of her life in a castle by her father and later her son.
To Aranda, all this smacks of "mad love," an unbridled passion we moderns know all too well. So he portrays Joan as something of a spoiled Beverly Hills wife, unfortunate to love her husband excessively but none too wisely. Newcomer Pilar Lopez
de Ayala won a Goya for her portrayal of Mad Joan, and the film was Spain's entry for this year's foreign language film Oscar. Yet the distant subject matter and the unavoidably gloomy tale that engulfs these characters probably doom the Sony Pictures Classics release to a limited audience.
Aranda's script takes pains to contemporize its medieval characters. There are only passing references to the religious austerity of the Spanish court and its persecution of non-Catholics. Otherwise, Joan and Philip (Italian actor Daniele Liotti
, who is dubbed) are like any dysfunctional couple. He barely troubles to conceal his love affairs with other women, while she suffers jealous rages within the royal apartments. Apparently, Joan has an insatiable need for the pleasures of the marital bed. Even breast-feeding her children -- the only maternal act we witness in the movie -- sends her into ecstasy.
Upon her unexpected ascension to the Castilian throne because of the deaths of an older brother, sister and finally her mother in 1504, Joan ignores her duties as a monarch to pursue evidence of her husband's transgressions. Egged on by his supporters, Philip decides to have his wife declared mad so he can seize the throne. Only his sudden death delays this action.
The trouble with making this queen a thoroughly modern maiden is that it also makes her appear foolish and shallow rather than, as was more likely, a victim of mental illness. It's hard to sympathize with a ruler who has so little regard for her own subjects, children or the role history has thrust upon her.
The two main actors do fine jobs of humanizing their characters, but the time leaps make them struggle to ascribe motives and subtleties to ever-shifting behavior patterns. Courtiers come off as a conniving lot, as is common in costume dramas, but the actors do create vivid personalities. Especially noteworthy is Manuela Arcuri
, who manages to be sensual yet hugely vulnerable as Philip's Moorish mistress.
Aranda sometimes drifts into cliches. A heavy downpour accompanies the announcement of the death of Joan's mother. Joan's father is seen eating like a pig while conspiring with her husband to make certain we really don't like him. A voice-over narration turns the film into a history lesson rather than a tale of doomed love.
The pomp and circumstance, art direction, elegant lighting and cinematography evoke the medieval world well. Jose Nieto
's orchestrations are in a restrained classical mode. But the milieu on display, not quite medieval and not quite modern, never comes to life.
Sony Pictures Classics
An Enrique Cerezo
PC/Production Group/Take 2000 production in association with TVE, Canal Plus, TeleMadrid
Screenwriter-director: Vicente Aranda
Producer: Enrique Cerezo
Director of photography: Paco Femenia
Production designer: Josep Rosell
Music: Jose Nieto
Costume designer: Javier Artinano
Editor: Teresa Font
Joan: Pilar Lopez
Philip: Daniele Liotti
Aixa: Mannuela Arcuri
Alvaro de Estuniga: Eloy Azorin
Elvira: Rosana Pastor
De Vere: Guiliano Gemma
Admiral: Roberto Alvarez
Ines: Caroline Bona
Running time -- 117 minutes
MPAA rating: R