A 17th-century nun in Italy suffers from disturbing religious and erotic visions.
Paul Verhoeven’s never been one for subtlety. The man that brought us Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995) plunges us into 17th-century Italy with Benedetta, where piety, masochism, and raunch are combined with a tale of lesbianism and religion. Inspired by real events documented in Judith C. Brown’s 1986 book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, Benedetta explores spirituality and ecstasy like it’s the same subject. It all starts inside a serene Tuscan convent after a statue of the Virgin Mary topples onto of a child called Benedetta Carlini, but instead of crying or becoming distressed she started suckling its plaster breast. This is the level of subtlety one should expect…
We fast-forward to a grown-up Benedetta (Virginie Efira) now having erotic visions of a naked but sexless Jesus, who instructs her to get naked. There’s no nuance to the imagery of burning red skies and snakes wrapped around bodies, so one won’t need a degree in Religious Studies to get what’s being implied here. Benedetta awakens with stigmata and the belief she has a hotline to God, so promises to pray a plague away and protect terrified townsfolk.
Benedetta was traded by her wealthy parents at a young age, so she connects with Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), who’s desperate to escape her abusive father. These two women are fascinated by each other and their relationship starts innocently before ramping up in Verhoeven’s trademarked overblown way. Most directors would opt for longing glances and heaving bosoms, but Benedetta is filled with naked bodies, carnal forces, and religious figures being used as sex toys. Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie proudly showcases intertwined naked bodies, with no candlelit nuance to be found.
Later, Benedetta ascends to the role of abbess in the small Tuscan town, ousting the financially-motivated nun Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) from office and her presence appears to usher forth apocalyptic events. The Nuncio (Lambert Wilson) arrives with the only cure, to burn every blasphemous woman at the stake. Appearing in opulent garb from his sprawling mansion, he’s singleminded in his mission as the town deals with disease, famine, and potentially a comet, while all lustful Benedetta thinks about is sex. Perhaps this is more a commentary on religion than it initially appears, but that’s for individuals to determine.
Benedetta isn’t concerned about whether or not this young nun has a real connection to God, or if she’s just faking her blessing. Screenwriters David Birke and Verhoeven himself are more concerned with how her visions are manifested and the fear they create in people. It’s the smaller details beneath all the sex, gore, and torture that make Benedetta special. Efira and Patakia are fearless in their performances; the longing in their eyes and the dissonances between reality and fiction push this film beyond the cheap softcore porn it could easily have become.
God and religion are merely a cover, as there’s no repenting and divine love to be found in Benedetta. The convent regularly claims to do the Lord’s work yet will only accept girls whose families pay a dowry. When the lead begins to assert sainthood, the power dynamic unexpectedly changes and the film challenges audiences to find the exploitative nature of people blasphemous.
Verhoeven opts to finish on a sombre and reflective note as the last 10-minutes atones for all the debauchery. Benedetta sits somewhere between a historical drama depicting homosexuality and religion, and a pulpy softcore middle finger to Catholicism, all with an added dash of erotic thriller and black comedy. Some may find Benedetta too bombastic and exploitative to be taken seriously and enjoyed on any level. The queerness and lingering camera shots could be seen as intended to titillate heterosexual men, but in the rigid confines of Catholicism there’s true power in it. The torture scenes towards the end cross a line, however, with the camera unnecessarily panning over slim, nude bodies.
Ultimately, Benedetta struggles to find focus and meaning. It doesn’t have any real opinion on religion, nor does it make any judgements about its characters. It’s proudly tasteless with every frame crammed with flagellations, sex, blood, and blasphemy. And while there’s a rich vein of black humour added to this melting pot of sacrilege and rebellion, the end result and intention isn’t always clear.
FRANCE • BELGIUM • NETHERLANDS | 2021 | 132 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | FRENCH • LATIN
director: Paul Verhoeven.
writers: David Birke & Paul Verhoeven (based on the book ‘Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy’ by Judith C. Brown).
starring: Virginie Efira, Lambert Wilson, Daphne Patakia, Olivier Rabourdin, Clotilde Courau, Charlotte Rampling & Hervé Pierre.