Starring: Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia, Lambert Wilson
Director: Paul Verhoeven
The controversy around Benedetta has been tremendous. The moment it was revealed that Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Elle, RoboCop) had made a film set in a convent, the Catholic Church was poised to unleash its fury… and the director certainly delivered something to be furious about. Based on the true story of Benedetta Carlini, an Italian nun who embarks on a lesbian affair as she rises in the ranks in the church, the film is an adaptation of the 1986 non-fiction book ‘Immodest Acts: The Life Of A Lesbian Nun In Renaissance Italy’ by Judith Brown and is positively drenched with Verhoeven’s signature hyper-sexual style. And sure enough, the film has been met with picketed screenings and premieres worldwide. Now, the film is coming to cinemas in the UK.
Benedetta (Efira – Elle, Sink Or Swim, Adieu Les Cons) is gifted to a nunnery by her father, where she is taken under the wing of the abbess, Sister Felicita (Rampling – 45 Years, Melancholia, Dune). Believing she is married to Christ, she has dreams and visions in which he protects her from the marauding hordes of men that want to violate her. Upon the arrival of Bartholomea (Patakia – Djam), a wild and seductive novice, Benedetta’s visions become more vivid, resulting in her receipt of the stigmata. The community declare a miracle, venerating her connection with Jesus, but the abbess invites a diocesan investigator (Wilson – The Matrix, De Gaulle, Les Traducteurs) to discern if these visions are genuine, or if Benedetta is doing something much more sinister.
The relationship between the titular nun and Bartholomea of course develops and the sex scenes are some of the most explicit lesbian scenes in a cinema release since Blue Is The Warmest Colour. This is a film absolutely laden with sex. In a film that revolves entirely around the temptations of the flesh, this is understandable to a point, but Verhoeven dines out on his license to plaster nudity across the screen; not that he’s ever needed justification before. Both Efira and Patakia rise to the challenge, but the line between necessary and gratuitous nudity is not only crossed, but left at the Italian border as the film hurtles (nude) through the Tuscan hills. And it’s not long before you begin to wonder whether this is a director enacting his fantasies on screen, corrupting these Catholic girls with the ripe fruit of lesbianism.
However. This is a luscious enactment of a rare example of an actual documented LGBT+ history. These are few and far between, and while there is clearly a plethora of artistic license being taken here, it doesn’t negate from the fact that this is a very well-executed and stunningly composed film. Efira is remarkable as Benedetta, see-sawing between pious obeisance and full religious possession, while Rampling is gloriously and detestably stoic as the conflicted abbess. The power battle that ensues between the two makes for a compelling central narrative, because really this is a film about authority above any heaving bosom or scandalous vision.
Set against the backdrop of the bubonic plague that ravages through the town, the contrast between the blistering boils of reality versus the pert succulence of fantasy – be that sexual or religious – is vivid and grotesque. And as a comet lights up the sky at night, apocalyptic in its auspicious appearance, the town is torn apart not by the moral corruption that they believe is amongst them, but by the silent spread of cataclysmic disease.
Though the film is crammed with explicit sex, the film’s most shocking moments come in the form of Benedetta’s visions. Watching Jesus behead his love rivals, or seeing the nun remove his loincloth as he’s crucified is some strikingly eyebrow-raising stuff, begging the question of whether Verhoeven intends to provoke, offend or blaspheme. Films like Saint Maud have previously equated religious and sexual awakening, but the fact this occurs within the confines of a religious community, infiltrating the very fabric of the Church is what makes this feel like a similar goading to The Last Temptation Of Christ. But if you can get past the initial pearl-clutching outrage and go where Verhoeven wants to take you, this is a rich and evocative film.
UK Release: 25th March 2022 in cinemas, released by Pathé Distribution