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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Worst of All’ Bristles With Irony, Ambiguity

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When, at the beginning of Maria Luisa Bemberg’s superb “I, the Worst of All,” the archbishop of Mexico (Lautaro Murua) and the viceroy of Spain (Hector Alterio), both newly appointed, toast harmonious relations between church and state, you just know it’s not going to last. After all, this is the 17th Century, when the Inquisition was in full force, and the archbishop proves to be as religiously fanatic as the viceroy is worldly.

The really serious, inevitable clash, however, is not in fact going to be between these two men but between the archbishop and a singular young woman, Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz (Assumpta Serna), who entered her convent at age 20, persuaded by her priest that a life as a nun would not be incompatible with a life as an intellectual.

With a kindly, open-minded abbess supporting her, Sister Juana has had it her way: holding a singing class for children, tending to the convent’s accounts but spending most of her time in her garret library--considered the finest in the Americas at the time--studying and writing the poetry that would rank her among the greatest poets of Spain’s Golden Age. Her abbess sees her as the pride of the convent, but the woman-hating archbishop sees her activities as evidence of “scandalous dissipation.”

Not helping matters in the long run is that Sister Juana, apparently latently lesbian, has captivated the beautiful new vicereine (Dominique Sanda), who sees both of them imprisoned by the rigid proscriptions placed upon women at the time. The very existence of their friendship flouts convention, but as long as the viceroy’s tour of duty lasts Sister Juana is safe.

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Initially, the beautifully designed “I, the Worst of All,” adapted from a novel by Nobel Prize-winning Octavio Paz, bristles with a spirit of feminism and has us pondering its inescapable implications for the Roman Catholic Church of today: What of the status of its women, of freedom of expression and intellectual pursuit or, for that matter, the plight of Mexico’s poor?

But just as we’re sure that Sister Juana is headed for a burning at the stake, Bemberg takes us into the heart of the Catholicism’s enduring paradox: What the Church does to Sister Juana is abominable in its closed-mindedness and virulent misogyny but in doing so it provides her with the kind of testing that results in an astounding spiritual redemption. “I, the Worst of All” is charged with an ambiguity and an irony that is electrifying. Well-supported by Sanda, Alterio and others, Serna is, as always, a fine actress; here she give us a portrayal of the kind of range, passion and intelligence that is demanded in portraying Joan of Arc.

Bemberg’s “I, the Worst of All” has proved to be the fitting valedictory for one of the most unusual careers in film; actually, “I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” an extraordinary fable of unexpected love starring Marcello Mastroianni, was the last of her six films. In her 40s the elegant Maria Luisa Bemberg turned her back on her life as a rich Argentine aristocrat to turn to filmmaking, making her directorial debut at 58. Each of her films, all of them feminist, but not militant in spirit, reflected her rapid maturity as an artist. The late U.S. arrival of “I, the Worst of All” (1990) allowed Bemberg, who died in May of cancer at 73, to leave us with a masterpiece.

* Unrated. Complex philosophical, ideological, spiritual and psychological themes rule this film out for younger children.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

‘I, the Worst of All’

Assumpta Serna: Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz

Dominique Sanda: The Vicereine

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Hector Alterio: The Viceroy

Lautaro Murua: The Archbishop

A First Run Features release of a Crisalida Films presentation of a Gea Cinematografica production. Director Maria Luisa Bemberg. Producer Lita Stantic. Executive producer Gilbert Marouani. Screenplay by Bemberg and Antonio Larreta; based on the novel “The Traps of Faith” by Octavio Paz. Cinematographer Felix Monti. Editor Juan Carlos Macias. Costumes Graciela Galan. Music Luis Maria Serra. Production designer Voytek. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.

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