13 February 2007 | eugene-neiman-1
"Teresa de Jesús" is a jewel of Spanish cinema, with Concha Velasca playing the role of Teresa of Avila (for this is how most of us know her), mystic and, ultimately, Doctor of the Church. This is no naïve, sweet interpretation of sainthood. The writers and Concha Velasca make us aware of Teresa's struggle to be humble and remain faithful to the church one the one hand, and reform an entire religious order (the Carmelites) taking them back to their primitive rule and thereby launching one of the most effective answers to the Protestant challenge to come out of Spain. Along the way, Saint Teresa of Avila, discovers and launches another saint (and Doctor of the Church), John of the Cross. "Teresa de Jesús" is an 8 hour mini-series, and Concha Velasca's "aging" (she was about the same age as Teresa when she began her reform at the time this was filmed) with the character seems both effortless and natural -- what talent.
Here is a "masterpiece", but you will not see it on American television, which seems to have a parochial view of religious content (unless it is Count Dracula, of course). What a loss. This series is less about religion and more about the spiritual journey. The writers (two women and a man, including the director, Josefina Molina) were able to be sympathetic to the plight of women in Spain in the 16th Century without breaking the spell of age with modern messages. A example of their success is the discussion of the dilemma of women -- marriage, childbirth and higher odds of an early death, or celibacy and, typically, life in a convent.
This reality of women was sharp enough that numbers of Spanish women did choose a convent life, and this invariably led some convents to gravitate to the comfortable life. Teresa of Avila upset this trend, and much of this story is about her struggles with "conventional" Christians (who preferred a self-contained life with some luxuries and who battled her most of her life), her ability to inspire others even in the face of violent opposition, and her adroit handling of superiors. As difficult as the bishops and priests are (everyone has an agenda), the women of nobility raise the biggest fires. Noblewomen were not only patrons of convents, but often had them attached to their grand homes. The film successfully introduces us to their complex personalities: vain or pious, they too have agendas. Some considered convents a good source of female help; moreover, as Teresa's reputation for sanctity spread, some would coerce priests to order Teresa to visit them. It was then fashionable to have a presumed saint in residence.
The writers carefully pace the series. They gradually introduce more elaborate costumes (beautiful and authentic Spanish costume of the period), exotic locations (Medina del Campo for those of you who know it from James Mitchner or Carlos Fuentes) and new characters, and these add to the enjoyment each episode. I would like to mention two women in particular. Mid-series we meet the Princess of Eboli (yes, she really was a beauty and she really did have only one eye), played by Patricia Adriani (pulling it off as one of the youngest of the adult actors in the series). You will not forget the image of this powerful and willful person as she conveys her dead husband to their castle and, she presumes, her future convent. Compared to her, the Inquisition was for Teresa easy. The other woman is Sister Ana, who takes care of Teresa late in her life. Sister Ana is Teresa's, ah, left hand (we who are sinistral notice these things). I enjoyed Sister Ana's subtle maturation, all in the last hours of the series, from someone "not able to write" to the embodiment of all of the saints successes. I do not know for sure who played the role, Silvia Munt I think.
So how did I see this? A friend bought a copy of the series (3 DVDs on the bargain counter) in a Madrid department store. They are PAL format (European standard), but I was able to play them through a laptop (with commonly available DVD software). I S3 videoed and audio jacked it out to an LCD TV. And as an American poet, who also read St. Theresa's autobiography, wrote -- "that is that, is that."