BENEDETTA isn’t blasphemy. It’s a work of true faith. Religious leaders of today might make the same mistake some of the papal legates in the film make, but BENEDETTA is really about faith in God’s word, rather than man’s religion. It’s ravishing, sensual, cruel, and funny. It is very relevant during this pandemic since it is set against the historical background of the black plague and does actually show how the pandemic disease is transmitted. In this, it courts the ideas of the penalties for going against the will of God and good common sense.
Full disclosure: I am the product of a very Catholic home who refused the sacrament of Confirmation at age 16. I am no fan of the Catholic Church, but I understand the Church and Catholics very well.
This is the official synopsis of the film: A 17th-century nun in Italy suffers from disturbing religious and erotic visions. She is assisted by a companion, and the relationship between the two women develops into a romantic love affair. The film is based on the book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown. Directed by Paul Verhoeven, co-written by Verhoeven and David Birke (Elle), starring Virginie Efira (Elle) as Benedetta, Daphné Patakia (Nimic) as Bartolemea, Louise Chevillotte (Synonyms) as Soeur Christina, and Charlotte Rampling (Dune, Dexter) as Soeur Felicita, l’abbesse.
I have seen the headline of this film’s most infamous review so far that compares it to Verhoeven’s previous film Showgirls. Nothing could be further from the truth than that asinine comparison. Verhoeven’s films have always had humor in them and have always dealt frankly with sex and sexuality. If I had to make a comparison, I would compare it to Ken Russell’s most celebrated and vilified film The Devils. Verhoeven has wisely made a film that never really gives you a concrete answer about whether or not Benedetta is divinely inspired. Virginie Efiria is very beautiful, as is the entire main cast, which is principally composed of women, but she also has that beatific presence that Jennifer Jones had in The Song of Bernadette, the film about the miracle of Lourdes and the story of Bernadette Soubirous. No matter what Benedetta does, her fundamental innocence never changes. She could be moaning from the pleasure of being penetrated or standing stark naked outside and that innocence remains incorrupt.
Likewise, Daphné Patakia has a slightly different, but more playful version of immutable innocence radiating from her. In fact, Benedetta as a child is shown to be as rambunctious as Bartolomea is when she arrives at the convent which is a very nice touch. Louise Chevillotte also stands out as Soeur Christina, who is willful and jealous, and a representation of the rest of the Church in the inner circle of the convent and the story. She is touching in her confusion and anger. One of the best things about her performance is that you can’t really hate her. You feel pity for what her emotions drive her to do. Charlotte Rampling is exquisite in the loveliness of her visage against the world-weary resignation of her soul.
Verhoeven and Birke have crafted a film that has a consummate grasp of the thematic content of the story and how to subtly implant the film’s ideas into the audience’s heads. Yes, it is the LESBIAN NUN MOVIE, but it functions on philosophical and moral levels as well. It is a work of intelligence and world-class craftsmanship. You can enjoy it simply as an erotic tale of nuns or you can engage with it on the other levels as well. Verhoeven stated in the press notes that he didn’t set out to make an activist movie or a feminist film, but by simply telling the tale that he wanted to tell, he has done those things without effort.
One of the first discordant notes about religion is when Benedetta’s family is informed that the only thing that is really necessary for their daughter to join the order is for them to pay money. Benedetta has been raised to be a nun with sincere attention paid to religious instruction. The looks on their faces when they find that to the convent, none of that matters at all.
One of the other themes, that jibes completely with Verhoeven’s longtime aesthetic, is that the people of the 17th Century really weren’t as prissy and mannered as we think they are. Our modern perception of the past is that everyone lived in a continual state of Victorian prudery. There are some rude gags played for laughs but they also play a role in making the story and the film much more accessible to the person watching it. Instead of thinking, I cannot relate to this, you laugh and settle into the story or you are offended. If you are offended, it is a film that you will not understand. I think either reaction is one that Verhoeven would accept with glee. Verhoeven is an intellectual who is possessed by an imp of the perverse. His entire filmography is filled with films that were transgressive before transgressive became such a popular film description. Much credit is given to directors like John Waters for opening up the floodgates of weird and intentionally offensive filmmaking, but Verhoeven is one of the cabal of dissident filmmakers who have normalized scandalizing the audience and who have consecrated shock as a component of modern cinema.
In BENEDETTA, you find Verhoven in a much less cynical and aggressive mode. Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, yes, another woman, has filled the frame with warmth even in darkness. It is not the warmth of a raging fire, but the warmth of the sun on your skin. The blissful warmth of the outdoor scenes seems like an expression of Benedetta’s inner self. The film’s cinematography has a kindness to it. I don’t know any other way to put it. Even the less brightly lit scenes in the convent have a comforting feel, with a few exceptions.
The philosophical nature of the film is open-ended. You aren’t given any answers as to whether or not BENEDETTA is a genuine mystic, a self-deluded woman who genuinely believes in her visions, or a charming con artist. All three of these are potentially the answer or maybe a combination of any of the three. Verhoeven lets you make up your own mind about what BENEDETTA actually is. Further, through this exploration of religious ecstasy, and take note that the word for the greatest sexual pleasure and the greatest spiritual experience are one in the same. Ecstasy.
There’s a distinct parallel between the love of human beings for one another and the love of human beings for God. To me, what the film was saying is that all love is the same in the eyes of God. If you believe in God, you believe that he is all-powerful and nothing in God’s creation is wrong. God is omniscient. God doesn’t make mistakes. Everything on Earth that has ever been part of our existence is part of God’s plan. Aside from the things that God has specifically spelled out as sins or crimes against God, everything is part of God’s design. One of the greatest teachings of Jesus, the son of God, and part of the Trinity in Catholic belief, is that love is all-powerful. The film makes the point that religion is something that was not created by God. It was created and policed by Man. It is the, most likely flawed, interpretation of the Word. God made us and God allows us to have sex and love others in any way that we want. It’s just the Church and the State that have problems with other types of sexuality.
By showing the holy nun Benedetta having sex with another woman and not feeling any shame, it is a strong argument that homosexuality is equal in every way to heterosexuality. Which, of course, it is, without question. In the same way, it makes the argument thematically that what people consider to be pure love is not any different from carnal love. The sexual feelings you have for a partner are equally as valid and pure as emotions that are not carnal in nature. It’s all love. A lot of the problems that we have as a society can be traced to the lunkheaded insistence that carnal love is somehow dirty or different from supposedly pure forms of love. It is how society promotes the idea that women who have sex and enjoy it are “sluts”. You know the religious propaganda, “If you were a good woman, you would only have sex with one man, only after you were married and not for pleasure, just for procreation.” You’ll notice that only women really “lose their virginity” and afterward are no longer considered pure or worthy of protection while it is a crucial part of male pride to have as much sex as possible and to “deflower” as many virgins as one dude can. This is nothing but the attempt to control the sexuality of women, which many men are deathly afraid of.
Benedetta and Bartolomea are unashamed about what they do together and the ways that they do it. The acts are treated with delicacy but are powerfully lustful and fairly explicit. The concentration is not on parts of the body, but the expressions on the women’s faces. There’s a joy to the acts that go a long way towards normalizing the idea that sex is not something that should be considered ugly or wrong. It especially makes the point about lesbian love but can be extrapolated to any form of sexuality. Both of the actresses shine from within with a gentle purity, especially Bartolomea – who is revealed to have been sexually abused and raped by her family members. Bartolomea is never seen as a dishonored woman. This is key to the idea of blaming women for the crime of rape. In our society, instead of rapists being looked at as being scum of the Earth, it is women who are considered dirty, unmarriageable, and unworthy of love after being raped. At no point is Bartolomea’s character burdened with that trope.
The film’s criticism of the Church establishment, along with its misogyny and homophobia, goes really deep. It’s a criticism of society as well, which is largely structured by religion, even if it is not fully controlled by it. It is wonderful that Verhoeven is using the story of a Catholic mystic to tell everyone exactly what is wrong and wildly hypocritical about the dogma of the Catholic Church and by extension religions in general. It is amazing that he’s used the legend of a deeply religious woman to point out that belief in God and religion are not the same thing. It is smart that Verhoeven uses the story of Benedetta to point out that God is infallible, but the Church is not.
Faith is at the core of the film. It is the central question that is left up to the audience to decide. Do you have faith and believe in the miracles of Benedetta? How much of your beliefs are decided for you by a Church that you probably shouldn’t trust? A Church led by those who are motivated by greed and self-interest rather than the teachings of Jesus Christ or any other prophet? If you believe in God, maybe you shouldn’t believe in the people who want to tell you that the design of God is wrong because they don’t like it.
All and all, BENEDETTA is a highly entertaining and complex philosophical exploration of religion and morality that tells its story in a period piece setting that doesn’t seem old-fashioned and or boring in any way. It appeals to the intellect and the carnal urges in a way that points out that intellectualism and carnality aren’t enemies. It engages both of these parts of the self to make the point that they never should have been separated in the first place and that people should not feel shame for their own personal sexuality or sexual needs.
BENEDETTA is now available in select theaters from IFC Films. It will become available on Video on Demand on Tuesday, December 21, 2021.
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