Is it possible for a film to be both deeply profound and startlingly campy at the same time? Paul Verhoeven appears to be on a quest to find out, as Benedetta, a film loosely based on the life and trials of 17th century nun Benedetta Carlini, is the closest thing to manage it in recent memory. Centered by Virginie Efira’s fiery performance as the titular nun, Benedetta covers a lot of ground, chronologically and thematically. From the young girl’s arrival at the convent, all innocence and piety, to the entire upheaval of her life, the convent and perhaps religion itself, Verhoeven and co-writer David Birke (working from a book by Judith C. Brown) craft a film that is as insightful and incisive as it is bold and bawdy.
In a brief prologue, young Benedetta’s (Elena Plonka) unwavering faith saves her family from a roadside robbery, the first indication that this is a child with a purpose in her heart. Though she comes from a wealthy family, her father pays a dowry to the convent (lead by a striking Charlotte Rampling, working in French) instead of to a potential husband’s family, delivering a pre-pubescent girl into the hands of the Lord. Well, at least in to the hands of the sisters at this particular convent. She’s put through her paces as a Novice, changed from her lush brocade gown into course linen and given a small room in the dormitory for herself. It doesn’t take long for young Benedetta to make an impression on her new sisters, as her momentary pause to pray before a statue of the Virgin Mary becomes a near-tragedy-turned-miracle when the statue falls forward onto her…but doesn’t cause her harm. It all further convinces this young, impressionable soul that she is destined to be a bride of Christ.
Fast forward and Benedetta’s now grown, having only known the world inside the convent for her formative years and beyond. As a visit from her parents is winding down, a young woman (Daphne Patakia) runs frantically into the convent’s entryway, desperate to get away from the man chasing her. It’s a chaotic scene, but it ends with Benedetta’s father agreeing to pay the woman’s entry into the convent in order to stay safe from those determined to rape and abuse her. The two become fast friends, Benedetta’s poise and innocence contrasted by Bartolomea’s bold personality (and sexuality). Before long, the two have bonded in ways both platonic and romantic, Benedetta’s spirituality finding new and controversial ways to express itself as her world expands through their connection.
If you’ve heard anything about Benedetta, you’ve heard about its lesbian sex scenes; the film’s marketing campaign certainly isn’t playing it down. Are they graphic? Yep. A bit goofy? Sure. But also, dare I say, quite essential. The first time Bartolomea seduces Benedetta, showing her what’s possible with her own body—namely, the incredible power and pleasure in the female orgasm—it’s both over-the-top and something akin to moving. Efira’s Benedetta is as shocked and surprised as she is liberated, having lived her entire life up to this point confined to a habit. Bartolomea’s sense of freedom (and utter lack of real faith) turns Benedetta’s world on its head, making it possible for the film’s second half to go as big as it does. Benedetta begins having visions, speaking in tongues, even claiming to be marked by the stigmata. There are convent politics at play, egos and power struggles to contend with, and a plague threatening to invade the small city that, until now, has seemed to steer clear of the disease.
By the film’s third act, Verhoeven has put it all on the line. The convent’s leadership is in shambles, Benedetta has followed her unique path of righteousness to its inevitable conclusion, and the Vatican has sent in representatives to get things back in order, whatever the cost. There is a trial, and there will be consequences. Even Bartolomea gets caught up in it, and suffers some of the most horrific torture ever implied on screen (truly, women will cringe in empathy). There is so much jam-packed into the film’s final scenes, it’s sometimes hard to keep up; for a brief few minutes, it’s an action film, in others, a melodrama. That it all miraculously (pun intended) works is a credit to Verhoeven and his absolute willingness to just go there.
Benedetta is now playing in theaters, including at Music Box Theatre.
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