The life of Princess Joanna, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain and mother of Charles, the Hapsburg who ruled Spain as king from 1516 to 1556 and Holy Roman Emperor from 1519 to 1556, is ordinarily treated as a footnote in college textbooks. The unfortunate woman succeeded to the Castilian throne, along with her husband Archduke Philip of Austria, upon the death of her mother in 1504, but she was soon declared insane and kept in confinement for the rest of her long life (she died in 1555); meanwhile Philip died in 1506, and Joanna’s father Ferdinand ruled Castile as well as Aragon until his death (and Charles’ succession) in 1516. Obviously this is a very complex and involved story, but in the hands of writer-director Vicente Aranda it’s been turned into a big, plush, overripe tale of misguided passion, a richly illustrated but grossly simplified and romanticized history lesson that plays like a period soap opera. The old Carol Burnett writers might have dubbed it “As the Vientre Turns.”
In this highly imaginative recasting of the meagre record, Joanna is transformed into a naive, lovesick bride who pines away persistently over her handsome but philandering husband (Daniele Liotti). As played by Pilar Lopez de Ayala, she’s simply unable to deal quietly with Philip’s dalliances with such lovelies as Aixa (Manuela Arcuri), a Moorish mistress whom he goes so far as to install under a falsely noble name as a lady-in-waiting at their court in Burgos, and her excessive displays of jealousy are used by her husband’s greedy Flemish advisors as a pretext to remove her from power in his favor. Joanna thus becomes nothing more than the long- suffering wife who’s emotionally abused by her thoughtlessly macho brute of a spouse. But even feminists need not be too disheartened by her fate: though the poor thing is ultimately ejected from power, in this telling it’s not until after she’s faced down her opponents in a highly charged assembly of Castilian nobles and her faithless spouse has expired of an abrupt case of the plague.
“Mad Love,” as the original “Juana La Loca” has been unfortunately Englished, is handsomely mounted but ponderously directed, in a style that mimics a lesser “Masterpiece Theatre” presentation. Lopez de Ayala is a pretty girl, but she hasn’t the range to suggest the tortured depths we’re supposed to feel in Joanna, and it doesn’t help matters that in the last half of the film she’s portrayed as being constantly pregnant–a condition that apparently requires her to carry a beach ball beneath her clothes in virtually all her scenes. Liotti is studly in a Fabio sort of way, and he tosses his head to jiggle his long, curly hair with a model’s poise, but he makes Philip a fairly dense, colorless fellow; and Arcuri is stuck with a stereotypical, shrewish role that even requires her to moan a Satanic incantation to entrap him–a gambit which suggests that the makers might harbor a bit of the fanaticism and prejudice that marked the Spain they’re depicting. The remaining performers are fundamentally human sticks of furniture in sixteenth-century garb; only the boyishly sweet Eloy Azorin makes much of an impression as Alvaro, a captain who was once a childhood playmate of Joanna’s and is used by her in an attempt to make her husband jealous.
Pictorially the film is impressive enough, aided by Paco Femenia’s stylish widescreen camerawork, but too often the effect is of carefully-composed static images rather than effectively choreographed ones. The music score by Jose Nieto is gently supportive as well. But as a whole “Mad Love” is like the Spanish equivalent of Trevor Nunn’s “Lady Jane” (1985): an elegant surface can’t conceal the fact that it takes egregious historical liberties and is both emotionally overwrought and entirely too long–even though it never clarifies the political machinations at work (the role of Ferdinand in events, for instance, is so cryptically portrayed as to be unintelligible) and the rushed wrap-up is bafflingly incomplete. Unless you’re a sucker for period pageantry or the notion of a glossy early modern novella makes you salivate, you’d be best off leaving poor Joanna an unexplored footnote in your old Western Civ text.