• Juarez (1939)

    April 1, 2024
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    The 1939 film Juarez depicts the debacle of the French attempt to establish hegemony in Mexico under the auspices of Maximilian von Habsburg. The unlikely combination of characters involved in the fiasco shows that once again truth is stranger than fiction.

    Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, styling himself as Emperor of the French, was the master manipulator of the affair which sent the Austrian Archduke Maximilian to his doom. Maximilian's consort was the intelligent and mercurial Charlotte (Carlota) of Belgium, a granddaughter of Louis-Philippe, the Citizen-King. Although Juarez is a simplification of an extremely complicated series of events, it brings to life the historical reality of such fascinating personalities coming together.

    I personally think that the film was misnamed; it should have been called Carlota, since Bette Davis turned her supporting role as the Empress of Mexico into the heart and soul of the drama. In typical Bette fashion, she upstages everyone else, including the great Paul Muni as Benito Juarez. Brian Aherne is perfection as the noble, charming and romantic Maximilian, the most hapless of Habsburgs, and one of the most liberal, too. The film does not show his marital infidelities, but it does play up the irony that Maximilian's reforms were similar to those proposed by Juarez. This did not endear the Emperor to the wealthy landowners and he lost their support. The real struggles of Maximilian and Carlota with their childlessness is poignantly portrayed, as is their genuine horror when they realize that they have been duped by Napoleon III. Maximilian perceives that the imperial Mexico of his dreams is nothing but a cruel charade, and that the original plebiscite that brought him there had been rigged. Nevertheless, he and Carlota have fallen in love with their new country and have come to identify so deeply with Mexico's agonies that there is no turning back.

    The gradual disintegration of Carlota's sanity is perhaps one of Bette's greatest achievements as an actress. Carlota's breakdown at the Tuileries is a heartrending scene, with Bette authentically capturing the mannerisms of a person descending into mental illness. In actuality, Carlota's complete psychological collapse occurred not at the Tuileries but in Rome, where Pope Pius IX sighed: “Nothing is spared me in this life, now a woman has to go mad in the Vatican." The Empress never saw her husband again; he was shot by order of Juarez, while Carlota spent the next sixty years secluded in a Belgian castle. As for Mexico, in years to come the Church would be persecuted there; many of the faithful would be martyred.

    The scene of the most stunning beauty is one earlier in Juarez where Carlota in black is praying at the foot of the statue of Our Lady. The prostrate Empress begs to have a child, and for the success of the Mexican enterprise, surrounded by the votive candles, with darkness hovering beyond the small sphere of light. Her faith in the face of insurmountable difficulties is all the more radiant if the viewer knows that her prayers will not be answered according to her heart's desires. Her posture of supplication communicates a total oblation of self to the will of God. Once again it is demonstrated that sometimes God chooses not to save a people or a nation through political means. Rather, He intends to sanctify in the crucible of sacrifice.


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    Mary-Eileen Russell

    Mary-Eileen Russell grew up in the countryside outside of Frederick, Maryland, "fair as the garden of the Lord" as the poet Whittier said of it. She graduated in 1984 from Hood College in Frederick with a BA in Psychology, and in 1985 from the State University of New York at Albany with an MA in Modern European History. She is the author of six books under the pen name of "Elena Maria Vidal." She lives in Talbot County, MD with her family.
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