Vet director Vicente Aranda’s 24th feature, the sumptuous “Madness of Love,” is a solid but finally uninspiring costume drama on the life and strange times of a Spanish historical curiosity. Juana the Mad, daughter of Spanish royalty, was by all accounts a radical figure, but the film is unfailingly conformist — surprising, given Aranda’s rep as an agent provocateur of Spanish cinema. Quality production values and a central perf fusing delicacy and power from Pilar Lopez de Ayala make this Aranda’s best film since 1991’s “Lovers,” but the unfashionable genre and the project’s cultural specificity mean that pic’s virtues are unlikely to drive offshore buyers mad far beyond the fest circuit.
Pic’s epic sweep is a departure from the economy of Aranda’s “Jealousy” (1999) and a return to the range of 1995’s “Libertarias.” It’s the mid-16th century, and the aging Juana (Lopez de Ayala), who’s been incarcerated for 50 years, reflects on her life. As a young girl she was sent to Flanders for an arranged marriage, bidding farewell to childhood sweetheart Alvaro de Estuniga (Eloy Azorin) and her mother, Isabella (Susy Sanchez), who instructs Juana to say that she has married for love.
Her feral hubby, Felipe (Italian thesp Daniele Liotti, dubbed), is pure sex in a doublet. In a well-staged scene in which the two meet across a large, empty hall, Juana falls for him big time, and Felipe whisks her off to the bedchamber.
Juana quickly shows she is too gauche and temperamentally careless for Brussels court life. Felipe’s love-making has taught her the pleasures of sensuousness, and even suckling her children arouses her. However, given Aranda’s fabled track record in erotics — and given that pic is about passion — the visuals are strangely chaste.
Isabella dies and, the same day, Juana discovers Felipe is sleeping with another woman, a Moorish belly dancer, Aixa (Italian actress Manuela Arcuri).
Juana is now queen of Spain, and they return there; Felipe arranges to have Aixa brought over as a maid for Juana. Mad with jealousy, Juana starts to use Alvaro to provoke Felipe, who, with his eye on the kingship of Castile, decides to have Juana incarcerated.
Casting Lopez de Ayala in such a central role was a calculated risk — most of her work has been for the tube — but it pays off. Her pallid, wide-eyed features and flickering responsiveness to her surroundings communicate perfectly the sense of a woman permanently on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Apart from Juana, the characters are one-dimensional, though generally well-played. Pacing is often suspect, and the irritating voiceover, which sounds like a second-grade history class, is redundant. On the plus side, Aranda lingers lovingly over offbeat historical detail — nipple-painting was all the rage in Renaissance Europe — and the generally on-location shoot gives real weight and depth to the historical setting. Jose Nieto’s score is appropriate but colorless.