Apart from the first New York screenings of Benedetta, the adaptation by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven of a true story about an Italian nun who claimed to have visions of Jesus and was jailed for having a lesbian relationship with another sister in her convent, around seven to ten demonstrators decried the film’s salacious portrayals of sexual activity among women who have renounced earthly pleasures in the name of their religion. This is, in other words, the usual response to this stuff. Benedetta, to be clear, has been marketed to titillate (so to speak): first poster, released before the Cannes Film Festival premiere, featured the half-naked torso of a nun. Based on that alone, you can make some educated guesses about the tone of this one, especially if you’re familiar with Verhoeven’s work (Showgirls, Basic Instinct) and his fascination with the politics of sex. Corn Benedetta, now hitting theaters, is more than a sexy flick about horny nuns.
Benedetta, based on the 1986 non-fiction book by historian Judith C. Brown Shameless acts: the life of a Renaissance nun in Renaissance Italy, is the story of Benedetta Carlini (played by Virginie Efira), the daughter of a 17th century Italian bourgeois family who joined a cloister of ascetic nuns in Pescia. At the convent, learning the political hierarchies between her sisters and the authoritarian abbess (Charlotte Rampling), she meets Sister Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). They begin a romantic relationship, first by simply flirting, then making bolder advances at each other through the thin sheet of fabric separating their beds. Obviously, this sort of thing is frowned upon in Renaissance Catholicism, and when Benedetta is suspected of faking her now famous religious ecstasies, others in the convent will do whatever they can to bring her down.
As the events of the film are shaped to fit Verhoeven’s irreverent model of a historical drama, with occasional moments of sour humor that made me howl with laughter, most of what happens in the film (despite the Virgin Mary’s dildo) is, according to the historical record, true. Benedetta existed, she took religious vows and entered a convent, she became a mystic who claimed a connection with the divine, and she was tried by the church and imprisoned because of her relationship with a woman – the same woman who ended up confessing everything made to her inquisitors. What’s funny about Verhoeven’s film is the way Benedetta herself is presented: not as a cartoon love affair caught between lust and religion, or as a pornographic parody of a real person, but as an extremely intelligent schemer who expertly influences everyone around her to achieve her own ends. .
The genius of the film is that it is intentionally not clear whether Benedetta’s visions are real or fake. Benedetta is, in many ways, a power-hungry narcissist somewhat overwhelmed by her own influence, but some of the best scenes (at least the ones that don’t include Rampling vamping like the monomaniac Abbess) are the visions of Hot’s Benedetta. Rugged Jesus gallop on horseback to save her from the thugs or stride across a wheat field to propose marriage. The religious doctrine used to manipulate large amounts of people is nothing new or innovative, but in Benedetta it is presented as underhand politics among a group of marginalized women whose only connection to society is in the form of miracles, spectacle and the social diplomacy they create within the tense limits of their living space, a crucible whose intense pressure is in the interaction between the forbidden and the divine.