Mad Love

on May 26, 1995 by Sheri Linden
   In his 25th film, Vicente Aranda revisits the theme of his previous outing, 1999's "Jealousy," a contemporary, overripe exploration of sexual obsession, this time bringing a historical sweep to the subject. "Mad Love" is a dark, lush costume drama that offers a sympathetic reappraisal of a misunderstood protagonist. But unlike "Camille Claudel," which similarly chronicled the brutalities of love between two strong-willed, needy people, there's no backdrop of artistic or intellectual pursuit to lend the material complexity. Despite the film's arresting eroticism and visual riches--stark Spanish and Portuguese locations among them--there are stretches in which viewers might find themselves considering unrelated matters. Though the story touches on such weighty issues as the patriarchy's cruel hypocrisy, finally it reads as a cautionary tale about a woman who loved too much. Other than newcomer Lopez de Ayala's harrowing and delicate turn as Juana la Loca, the Spanish queen driven mad by jealousy and political intrigue, the characters get lost in the period trappings.

   Juana, daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand, the Catholic monarchs of Castile and Aragon, travels to Flanders in 1496 to wed Philip (Daniele Liotti, straight off the cover of a romance novel), who whisks her to the marriage bed before the luxury of an official ceremony. Though her love for Philip awakens a profound passion in Juana, soon enough she is perpetually pregnant and he is perpetually sharing the royal love with ladies-in-waiting and Moorish princesses. Juana's senses and instinct drive her--against convention, she insists on breast-feeding her firstborn, and delivers the second, alone, in a toilet stall, cutting the bloody cord with her teeth. Philip considers her sexual advances (often spurned) and her agonies and rages over his chronic infidelity signs of insanity, but Aranda makes clear that Juana's "madness" is a matter of convenience for her husband and her father as they devise their power plays.

   "It must be madness to love someone as despicable as you," Juana tells Philip upon discovering the first of many betrayals. But love him she does, with an obsessiveness that both destroys and sustains her, poignantly depicted in the glimpses of her as an old woman that bookend the story: Half a century after Philip's death, Juana still longs for him. As the object of that lifelong passion, Liotti's Philip, with his long tresses and alternating bare chest and puffy shirts, looks like a cross between Howard Stern and Fabio, and serviceably smolders. The cast as a whole is fine, but it's Lopez de Ayala who lends the film depth with her ferocious, feverish Juana. Starring Pilar Lopez de Ayala, Daniele Liotti, Manuela Arcuri, Eloy Azorin, Rosana Pastor, Giuliano Gemma, Roberto Alvarez, Carolina Bona, Guillermo Toledo, Susy Sanchez and Hector Colome. Directed and written by Vicente Aranda. Produced by Enrique Cerezo. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Historical drama. Spanish-language; subtitled. Rated R for sexuality/nudity. Running time: 118 min

Tags: Spain, Portugal, Pilar Lopez de Ayala, Daniel Liotti, Manuela Arcuri, Eloy Azorin, Rosana Pastor, Giuliano Gemma, Roberto Alvarez, Carolina Bona, Guillermo Toledo, Susy Sanchez, Hector Colome, Vicente Aranda, foreign, Spanish

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