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Loose biopic of Spanish saint Teresa of Avila is dogged by a contrived script and cliches, and misses the opportunity to provide real insight into the life of a subversive reformer - from the Official Selection of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival

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Teresa de Avila was a Carmelite nun living in Central-Western Spain during the 16th century. She was a subversive reformer, and a central figure of a movement of spiritual and monastic renewal. She was eventually canonised, and Pope Paul VI proclaimed her the first female Doctor of the Church in 1970, a title given to saints recognised as having made a significant contribution to theology. You wouldn’t know that from watching Teresa, a non-factual movie intended to reinterpret her doubts and teachings at free will.

Teresa (Bianca Portillo) lives in a convent with other nuns (who we barely ever see). A sadistic and manipulative inquisitor (Asier Etxeandía) visits her with the sole objective of intimidating the strong-willed and self-determined clergywoman. He believes that she is promoting teachings that are not aligned with Catholic doctrine, and repeatedly threatens her with the capital punishment: being burnt on the stake. Virtually the entire film consists of conversations between the two people, interspersed by flashbacks of Teresa’s youth (played by Greta Fernández), particularly the events that led her to take vows, plus a few bizarre “visions”. She has her life scrutinised in more ways than one. The evil male is convinced that she engaged in romance and perhaps even carnal pleasures at some point, and that the devil is still in full control of her. He’s profoundly misogynistic, certain that a woman possesses neither the intellectual skills nor the divine entitlement to promote changes. Teresa confronts him with palpable assuredness. Portillo’s auspicious, more down-to-earth performance remains the film’s most remarkable achievement.

Etxeandía tries so hard to look evil by tilting his body forward in an expression of menace, plus squinting and pouting that his face must be aching still. Perhaps just not as much as the eyes and the ears of the poor cinema-goers. This is a film so overconfident of its visual and narrative skills that it’s painful to watch. A pretentious cinematographic mess. The flashback images (illustrating Teresa’s gorgeous youth) are so bright, plush and silly-jolly that they resemble one of those pamphlets that the Jehovah local Witnesses stick in your letterbox at the weekend, or an Easter pageant with super expensive pyrotechnics. The evil inquisitor is surrounded by yellow and red hues, almost as if you could see the flames around him. Teresa is given a baby blue treatment, as if the divine moonlight was permanently shining on her. Tawdry and cliched.

The aesthetics aren’t the only problem. There is no explanation as to who sent the inquisitor, and the events that triggered the investigation. The conversations are so contrived and infused with bizarre theological references that the film is barely coherent. What you basically get is the unrelenting dialectical duel between an evil man an a saintly woman, with a thin pseudo-feminist veneer, and without any room for subtleties and reflection. A historically inaccurate twist (intended to be an epic denouement) at the end does little to rescue the viewing experience.

Teresa doesn’t serve an educational purpose, either. There’s very little contextualisation, and the narrative is so intoxicated with the empty platitudes of the three screenwriters (Javier García Arredondo, Juan Mayorga and the director Paula Ortiz) that you won’t learn many real and particularly relevant facts about the prominent religious reformer.

Teresa just premiered at the Official Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.


By Victor Fraga - 17-11-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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