- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 28, 2002

''Mad Love," exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle, fails to take advantage of a catchier Spanish title, "Juana la Loca." The Juana in question is a daughter of Queen Isabella of Castile. The madness results from a marriage that begins in rapture in 1496 but deteriorates into open bitterness and recrimination over the course of a decade as the still devoted wife refuses to suffer in silence when her husband dallies among the ladies-in-waiting.
One of the things they seem to be waiting for, if one can trust writer-director Vicente Aranda, is the erotic curiosity of Joan's consort, Felipe. To remain consistent with the movie's subtitles, she will be known hereafter as Princess Joan and he as Archduke Philip, nicknamed the Handsome, although the word "smoldering" would suffice for Italian actor Daniele Liotti. As an emotional instrument, he plays a distant second fiddle to the gorgeous and tempestuous young Spanish actress cast as Joan, Pilar Lopez de Ayala, who may force Penelope Cruz into early retirement if her English is adequate.
The princess is introduced in transit from Laredo to Flanders, where an arranged dynastic marriage with the archduke awaits. Isabella appears during these episodes to bid her daughter farewell and offer such bleak consolation as the reminder that royalty is "a painful and terrible task." Upon arrival, Joan is overwhelmed by the ardor of her bridegroom, who insists on celebrating the wedding night several days before the official ceremony.
From that moment on, Joan is a prisoner of love. She bears three children, including a male heir, the future Charles I of Germany and Charles V of Spain, before discovering that her husband falls short of her own marital devotion.
Never reconciled to his infidelity, considered customary within the Flanders court, which we're told is far more permissive than anything Joan could have been aware of in straight-laced and austere Castile, the heroine fumes and rages and acquires a reputation for jealous derangement.
This is not unwarranted but is regarded with generous sympathy by Mr. Aranda, who perceives Joan as a harbinger of modernity to the extent that she broadcasts her injured feelings. In fact, she makes demands that defy male prerogatives, particularly the tendency of noble consorts to acquire mistresses when it pleases them.
Given the society in which she enjoys a privileged position of her own, Joan seems to demand the impossible of Philip. Her craziness begins with the assumption that he can sustain a fidelity comparable to her own. Clearly, the thought has never entered his mind. This desire also may look vain from the standpoint of contemporary permissiveness, but I think Joan's insistence on complaining with a vengeance will cover that technicality, protecting her position as a fascinating vessel of wrath and disillusionment.
Part of the appeal of the film is the opportunity to observe how Spanish film professionals mount a historical spectacle recalling conflicts from the Spain of five centuries ago. "Mad Love" is an ominously handsome production, certainly as evocative as Ridley Scott's "1492," but not as resplendent.
The problem with it conceptually is that there's very little sense of the aftermath of 1492 or any other major historical events beyond the conjugal joys and woes of Princess Joan. Pilar Lopez de Ayala is exceptionally attractive and intense, but it does seem a little funny that her tribulations monopolize the agenda. A passing reference to wars or explorations would be welcome. You find yourself musing: What's new with the Inquisition?
There's also an enormous continuity gap that leaves us contemplating a cloistered Joan, circa 1554, without accounting adequately for almost 50 years that have gone by since the last detailed episode in the scenario. The written epilogues won't suffice, especially if one recalls allusions in the prologue to conflicts with Joan's son that have remained undepicted. Maybe there's a "Juana la Loca" sequel not that I'm trying to promote one.
As a practical matter, the appetite for Pilar Lopez de Ayala will exceed the appetite for updates on the exile of Crazy Joan of Castile.

TITLE: "Mad Love" (Original Spanish title: "Juana la Loca")
RATING: R (Occasional sexual candor and graphic violence in the context of a historical costume drama; nudity and episodes of simulated intercourse; morbid illustrative details in scenes of disease and death)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Vicente Aranda. Cinematography by Paco Femenia. In Spanish with English subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes

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