The first couple of episodes of the Mexican miniseries on Netflix about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Juana Inés, I found intriguing but pretty broad-brush. It was a glimpse into (someone’s version of) a period of history most English people know next to nothing about, Spanish Mexico in the 17th century. Sor Juana is perhaps the greatest figure of Mexican letters, a genius far from neglected even in her own lifetime: the Tenth Muse, the Minerva of the Americas, they called her, even while many of the religious authorities in New Spain chafed and grumbled at the idea of a woman (and a nun!) writing profane verse and speculating on theology. The amazing portrait of Sor Juana by Miguel Cabrera misleads with its sheer swagger (remember it was painted long after her death) and the most authentic image, created about 1680, is far more conventional while still emphasising the scholarly pursuits of its sitter, but she was highly thought of and clearly had no doubts about her own abilities. The series majors on the conflict of the learned nun and the Church hierarchy, but despite this restrictive set-up it becomes remarkably subtle by the end, an exploration of the nature of the religious life, albeit a contradictory and ultimately inconclusive one.
The show looks wonderful: the various New Spanish dignitaries remarkably resemble their contemporary portraits, and the clothes are fantastic. It’s all a bit static, as a great deal of the ‘action’ consists of characters talking to each other in cloisters, and often via a grille (any conversation between the Sisters of St Jerome and anyone who isn’t, for instance); and sometimes a bit repetitious, as young Juana first becomes the uncomfortable love-object of the desperately lonely and frustrated Vicereine Leonor, and then middle-aged Sor Juana enters into a not-quite-consummated relationship with Vicereine Maria-Luisa. The central relationship of the whole narrative is between Juana and her Jesuit confessor, Fr Antonio Nunez de Miranda, and that goes through thirty years of repeated conflict too until she dumps him and then, at the last, re-admits him. At first it seems that all the ecclesiastical figures are simply bigots, intent on reining-in this contumacious woman. There is Fr Antonio, apparently determined on saving Juana Inés’s soul from her own intellectual pride but full of his own unacknowledged motives; her cynical Prioress at the Hieronymite convent, Sor Maria, who cares mainly about preserving the comforts of the house against interference from outside; and the misogynist Archbishop Francisco de Aguiar y Seijas who seems frankly psychopathic. Only easygoing Archbishop Payo de Rivera, the cleric who admits Juana to her final vows and who likes a good poem and some Indian sweets, comes over particularly sympathetically.
Then after all this churchy and courtly to-ing and fro-ing, we have the last episode-and-a-bit where all these characters emerge rather differently. Poor Fr Antonio, who has spent thirty years harrying and manipulating Juana into giving up her intellectual life yet (as Archbishop de Aguiar points out) never quite forcing her, finally admits to her through the convent grille that he has been at least partly motivated by envy at her cleverness: that he has tried to ‘bring you down to my level’ by using the confessional to get her to stop writing. ‘I’ve never hated you … I’ve always admired you’, he stutters, and then passes through the grille the bundle of Juana’s romantic letters to the Vicereine that could get her denounced, surrendering the last hold he has over her. He gets shockingly beaten up by the Archbishop, and finally succumbs to a fever after a botched cataract operation: it’s not a happy end. When the Archbishop scours the convent for evidence to put Juana on trial, the Prioress is one of the very few sisters who refuses to collaborate (‘At my age, I can’t be expected to remember everything that’s happened over the last 25 years’, she comments innocently to the investigators), and organises the copying of her books so that they can be published in Madrid against the wishes of the colonial Church hierarchy. Finally, it’s the man who should be Sor Juana’s most bitter antagonist, the monstrous Archbishop de Aguiar, who liberates her: he visits the convent garden (overcoming his repugnance of female contact) to tell her she is free to choose what to be – a nun, or in her heart still a courtier, living in her imagination a life she claims to have left behind, to be ‘Juana Inés de Asbaje, or Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’. He’s not going to force her. You can see the scales fall from her eyes as she realises how much of her literary endeavour has been motivated less by pure delight in learning than by the very opposition she has aroused. Liberation from pressure means she can lay down her pen. She sells her books and equipment and gives the money to the city’s poor.
Except she doesn’t, quite. The series has to accommodate the fact that, although the historical Sor Juana Inés made a public act of penance and never published again, after she died ministering to the other nuns in a plague, manuscripts and books were found secreted in her cell proving that she never gave up writing completely. The story shows her treating this as a spiritual conflict, an addictive habit she has to combat: she even blames herself for the plague that hits the convent, scourging herself so that the aghast Prioress has to tear the whip out of her hands, and then breathing in the infected breath of one of the sisters so she too can die.
In the end I was impressed by the genuine way the series treats religion when at first I thought it was going to be a bit of a panto. Of course, from a secular-humanist point of view, Juana Inés’s change of heart is nothing more than a defeat, and it’s to the show’s credit that it hints otherwise. Sor Juana and Fr Antonio, at the centre of the maelstrom of misogyny and power, are shown taking the business of sin and redemption absolutely seriously. Both deeply flawed people, they see in the end how it goes to their very hearts. ‘God moves in mysterious ways’, says Fr Antonio somewhat pathetically as they talk about Juana Inés’s life at their last confession, which is as much his as hers; ‘God himself is the mystery’, she answers.