Benedetta (2021)

Paul Verhoeven | 2hr 11min

According to the 17th-century Catholic Church, it was demonic possession that drove Italian nun, Benedetta Carlini, to lesbianism and unearthly miracles. This is not the version of history that Paul Verhoeven is interested in though, as his demystification of her legacy instead strives to pick apart the shrewd, disturbed mind of a woman who effortlessly disguised her cons behind a façade of piety. Perhaps in the hands of a director with a more sensitive touch, Benedetta might have positioned her as a wronged woman acting out in righteous vengeance, but Verhoeven is not one to glamourise the complexities of history. This is far more akin to Game of Thrones or Luis Buñuel’s surrealist critiques of religion than any traditional historical romance, foregrounding sex, violence, and power plays as the keys to navigating a culture of deep-rooted hypocrisy.

For quite a while in Benedetta, we too are led on by the strange visions and coincidences that seem to hold deeper spiritual significance to the young Catholic novice. When she is confronted by a group of men on the roads of Tuscany as an eight-year-old girl, a bird flying overhead unexpectedly lets its droppings fall in one of their eyes. While admiring a statue of the Mother Mary at the convent she has joined, it appears to dislodge of its own accord and land on top of her without leaving so much as a scratch. Perhaps such incidents would be meaningless to anyone else, but for a young Benedetta, they signify blessings from God. When she is older, dreams begin to plague her through days and nights, most of them depicting Jesus rescuing her from danger, beckoning her towards him, or kissing her, and thus begins the start of what she believes is her romantic marriage to Christ.

Visions of Jesus manifesting as romanticised dreams, Verhoeven drawing heavily on Buñuel’s biting, surrealist critiques of religion.

When another young woman, Bartolomea, arrives at the convent begging to be taken in to escape her cruel father, Benedetta slowly finds herself drawn into her playful flirtations. Soon enough, her spiritual and sexual awakening begin to feed off each other, individually intensifying until both explode in full force. Not long after Benedetta begins to bleed from the hands, feet, and sides in a holy display of stigmata, she submits to her lustful longings, revelling in two separate relationships she views as being roughly analogous, to the point of calling Bartolomea “my sweet Jesus” after having sex.

It is only natural for a provocateur as uncompromising as Verhoeven to take this narrative in such a transgressive direction, following in the footsteps of Buñuel with the use of sex and religion to interrogate the human pursuit of transcendence. Perhaps this is most tangibly captured in one wooden figure of the Virgin Mary, the bottom half of which Bartolomea carves into a dildo, thereby creating a sacrilegious symbol of two conflicting human desires reconciled as one. This item might as well be a stand-in for Benedetta herself, whose embrace of both her lust and faith becomes a destructive confusion rather than a harmonious union.

Between the nuns, a figure of the Virgin Mary carved into the shape of a dildo – Verhoeven’s symbolism is scornfully provocative in binding together sex and religion.

Accompanying Verhoeven’s shocking narrative is a thorough absorption in the natural lighting of its setting, basking in the golden sunrays filtering through church windows, as well as the dim glow of candles, lamps, and torches illuminating the dark rooms of the convent. It isn’t until the red blaze of a comet passing overhead casts its demonic light upon the town of Pescia that his stylistic visuals catch up with his characters, transforming this holy site into an unnatural, apocalyptic landscape. While religious figures point to it as an ill omen, Benedetta takes it as an opportunity to assert her prophetic ability, claiming it as a sign that Pescia will be spared from the plague spreading through Italy.

The red light of the comet breaking up the natural lighting of the rest of the film, bringing about an apocalyptic vision of Benedetta’s rule.

Benedetta goes to some truly wild places from here, and Virginie Efira proves to be more than up to the challenge of capturing every contradictory facet of the nun’s elusive identity. Each time her exposure or defeat seems imminent, it is her guile and charisma that can flip the power dynamic in an instant, often adopting a deep, harsh voice that claims to speak directly from Jesus. Even as we begin to see through her pretence, we still can’t help but side with her in many scenes that expose the equal hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, defined by its own dissonance between vicious brutality and self-important incompetence. It is in this war between two forms of religious corruption that Verhoeven’s irreverent provocations lend themselves perfectly to a compelling piece of Italian history, each one gradually building Benedetta towards an outburst of wrathful vengeance, and violently bringing the church to its knees.

Benedetta is currently playing in theatres.

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