This review originally ran as part of Paste’s coverage of the 2021 New York Film Festival
The power and body of Christ compel the characters of Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, which ruminates on the raunchy interiority of a lesbian relationship realized inside of the sacred confines of a convent in 17th century Italy.
The carnal Catholicism which permeates the film is at this point to be expected from the 83-year-old Dutch filmmaker—but equally so is the film’s ability to utilize eroticism as a vehicle to examine pain, paranoia and power. Based on Judith Brown’s 1986 non-fiction book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, the same-sex relationship between Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira) and fellow nun Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) is patently portrayed in the film, but it does not restrict them—or any of the other sisters at the Convent of the Mother of God in Pescia, Tuscany—to the singular roles of martyr or zealot. Instead, Verhoeven and co-writer David Birke refuse to vindicate or validate the intentions of historical figures by today’s secular standards, confronting hierarchies that exist outside of the neat categories of “good” and “evil.”
Suggested to possess a mystic ability from a young age, Benedetta first arrives at the convent as an eager servant of the Virgin Mary at just nine years old—her only worldly possession a wooden statuette of the Mother of God. It’s clear that her bright-eyed devotion grates the rigid demeanor of the abbess who runs the nunnery, Sister Felicita (a spectacular Charlotte Rampling), yet an incident on Benedetta’s very first night at the abbey immediately evokes the possible presence of divine intervention (though Sister Felicita wryly insists that miracles are often “more trouble than they’re worth”). It’s not until nearly two decades later that the events which lead to Benedetta’s fall from grace unfold, marked by the arrival of a young woman named Bartolomea, fleeing her father’s abuse. It’s the tension between their two backgrounds—one of life-long devotion sheltered within the abbey’s holy walls, the other motivated by self-preservation in the face of unspeakable sin—that powers the pair’s magnetic pull.
However, Benedetta is not a drama solely intent on depicting historical accounts of homosexuality. The film is far more invested in fleshing out the potential intricacies of Benedetta’s motivations far beyond the margins history has allowed (Brown’s book only came to be after she happened across a transcript of Benedetta’s trial while doing research for another project in the state archives of Florence), creating a complicated portrait of the mania and vanity inherent of those seeking to secure sainthood. When Benedetta begins to experience hallucinogenic (and salacious) visions of Jesus, the line between miracle and manipulation is muddled and strained, often calling into question the validity of Benedetta’s quest for mortal martyrdom. Her eventual bid to upset Sister Felicita as head abbess is what sets the trial against her in motion—leading to the involvement of the ruthless Nuncio of Florence (Lambert Wilson), whose opulent garb and sprawling mansion nearly exist in a vacuum, untouched by the bubonic plague which decimates the general population. This serves as a broader metaphor for the Catholic Church’s self-indulgent interests, as does the constant mention of dowry and status often inherent to young women shipped off to nunneries. “This is a convent, not a charity,” deadpans Sister Felicite when Bartolomea first arrives in abject, impoverished desperation.
Verhoeven is notably skilled when it comes to examining the endless pursuit—and short-lived reality—of obtaining power, often treating lesbian relationships as nuanced examples of human needs and desires outside of the predictability of heterosexual hierarchies. In Basic Instinct, femme fatale Catherine (Sharon Stone) literally drives her lover Roxy (Leilani Sarelle) to a jealous, bitter end with her cat-and-mouse mind games, while also framing her ex-girlfriend Beth (Jeanne Tripplehorn) for a grisly string of crimes. Similarly, Showgirls’ central conflict between Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) and Cristal (Gena Gershon) is teeming with repressed lust, which only comes to a head when Nomi sabotages Cristal’s chance of enduring Las Vegas stardom—a petty power bid which ultimately culminates in the pair finally sharing a “big kiss” after Cristal recognizes that she, too, engaged in a similar plot when first on the rise.
Benedetta is thus a distinctive continuation of Verhoeven’s obsession with documenting the struggle for power. This exists not only between Benedetta and Bartolomea—who are constantly occupying different roles as seducer and seduced, saint and sinner, giver and receiver—but also between the Church and the dying masses usually tasked with upholding its values. Greater than the boundary between blessed and blasphemous is the chasm that exists between the Church and the citizens who follow it. Yet there is a tangible twinge of hopefulness present in the film: Shackles that are either imposed by individuals or institutions can be broken, even if only by way of speculation and imaginative flourish for a nearly forgotten figure.
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Writers: David Birke, Paul Verhoeven
Stars: Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Lambert Wilson, Daphne Patakia, Olivier Rabourdin, Louise Chevillotte
Release Date: December 3, 2021 (IFC Films)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan