The heroine of I, the Worst of All (Yo, la Peor de Todas), a 1990 Argentine film from director Maria Luisa Bemberg, is a 17th-century Mexican nun named Juana Ines de la Cruz. She had the talent, interests and intellectual drive of a Renaissance man, but her gender made her suspect in pursuing them. She was an admired playwright and poet, and for many years both she and the convent where she lived enjoyed the patronage and protection of the Spanish viceroy. Bemberg's film, adapted from the Octavio Paz book The Traps of Faith, dramatizes how the spiteful enmity of a misogynistic new archbishop led to Sister Juana's downfall.
Bemberg employs a lean, stripped-down period style, with the actors posed dramatically against expressionistic, stagy sets. The remarkable Assumpta Serna plays Sister Juana as a robust and passionate woman with the healthy, unapologetic ego of an artist who knows she's good and sees no reason to be coy about it. From her first scenes, it's a heartbreaking performance, because you immediately realize that the poor sister has no idea what effect her happy confidence has on some of the men around her--plenty of men today would be uncomfortable around this woman.
The lesbian angle comes from the intense and abiding (though unconsummated) love between Sister Juana and the repressed wife (Dominique Sanda) of the affable viceroy. Sanda's vicereine, to whom the nun addresses yearning love lyrics, keeps such an avid stare fixed on Juana that you'd think she was a piece of fudge--it's the one performance in the film that could have been toned, or textured a little.
Otherwise, I, the Worst of All is an impressively acted and directed piece. The only trouble is that it lacks any real surprise. There's hardly any plot, just a progressively more depressing state of affairs, and after the first half-hour, the movie's made its point. The dramatic rhetoric is good. At the beginning, the convent is a frolicsome sapphic commune in which Juana writes and stages bawdy comedies for the delight of the local gentry. As the evil archbishop cracks down on her creative freedom, the convent slowly transforms into a sick house, the sisters into moaning plague victims. This may be a timely allegory, but it's too seamless to be provocative, and, in any case, it's preaching to the converted.
Wild Reeds is a mild, coming-of-age idyll set in and around a rural boarding school in southwestern France in 1962, during the revolution in Algeria. It focuses on the sexualities of four teenage students. A sensitive kid (Gael Morel) realizes he's gay when he has a fling with a dorm mate, a big, dumb, good-looking farmboy (Stephane Rideau) who's basically straight, but too horny to quibble. The gay kid's best pal is a lovely gamine (Elodie Bouchez), the daughter of a communist teacher. She's revolted by her own attraction to a brooding, pied noir Algerian boy (Frederic Gorny) who supports the French nationals back home, and loathes his schoolmates openly.
The gradual, interconnected bonding of this lot is the meat of the film, and while it probably sounds like a big old load of insufferable Gallic adorableness, it's really not bad. Director and co-writer Andre Techine and his gifted young cast keep it light and swift and free of cutesy affectation. As with I, the Worst of All, the film has less to do with homosexuality in particular than with the political and social ramifications of sexuality in general--in this case, with the feebleness of one's ideas of political correctness as opposed to the pull of one's glands. No great revelation, maybe, but awfully hard to dispute.
The later films in the festival, which runs through July 7, are still to be announced.--
The Valley Art Third Annual Gay and Lesbian Film Festival continues at Valley Art Theatre, 509 South Mill in Tempe.