Paul Verhoeven might be one of the greatest modern-day iconoclasts in film history. A satirist and provocateur who never lets good taste get in the way of his moral statement, he has made some of the most subversive critiques of Western society while making them fun and accessible to a general audience.
His new film Benedetta straddles this line well, teasing you with a lesbian nun story while dissecting the systemic hierarchies that exist in institutions of power and making viewers question the basis of their faith. It’s a fun, thought-provoking film to watch in the right mood, which admittedly may not come for devout believers of the faith or people scandalized by sexual behavior.
Benedetta is a French-Dutch biographical film about 17th-century Italian nun Benedetta Carlini (played by Virginie Efira), who is said to be a mystical conduit of Christ. She was arrested and tried for having a lesbian relationship with a woman named Bartolemea (played by Daphne Patakia), though she was able to live up to her 70s.
Knowing that this is a Verhoeven film and hearing about the outrage felt by the critics and viewers who saw its premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, you will be surprised to learn that the first sex scene between Benedetta and Bartolemea happens about halfway through the movie. There is a lot of full-frontal nudity and the sex scenes can get sensual and graphic, but it’s very tastefully done. These scenes move the film forward, as a way to establish the love and connection between Benedetta and Bartolemea as well as implicitly show the possible reason why Benedetta’s visions and miracles occurred in the first place.
Verhoeven and his co-writer David Birke, who wrote his 2016 thriller Elle, imply that Benedetta’s visions may have started as a ploy to not only take power in the convent, but also as a way to find freedom and enjoy a loving, carnal relationship with Bartolemea. Bartolemea is, at times, the reason for Benedetta’s visions and strange mystical powers: at one point, Benedetta masturbates while looking at Bartolemea’s breasts, and receives a vision of her death when she climaxes.
Contextualizing the sex scenes with the visions that Benedetta receives is definitely a great choice, plot-wise, because the lesbian sex scenes, while graphic, feel important to the plot and how it progresses. The lesbianism does get Benedetta martyred, but (especially in the context of the film) it’s slyly hinted as the reason for her supposed “connection with God. The lesbianism moves the plot along, and it’s also important in making us question whether something sacred becomes sacrilegious if it comes from a source that the people in power do not recognize. Because, as we all know, power can come from the most unexpected of places, and the difference between holy and heresy tends to come down to your gender, race, and class status as much as it does to the sacredness of your power.
The film largely dramatizes Benedetta’s visions and mystical “powers,” and it does a really good job of obfuscating whether they were real or not. For example, it’s obvious that the stigmata Benedetta receives might’ve been self-inflicted. At the same time, she claims that the Holy Spirit (or possibly a demonic force) takes over her body and inflicts stigmata upon her. So the question of it being true or not is made irrelevant; instead, it asks us if believing Benedetta’s mystical acts as real is any different from believing in Jesus Christ itself.
That’s a hell of a statement to make, really, but what else can we expect from the man who wrote a book about how the political activism of Jesus Christ was corrupted and blunted by declaring him a deity in the flesh?
It explores both of those themes well when the Nuncio (played by Lambert Wilson) from Florence comes to the convent in an attempt to invalidate Benedetta’s visions. And how does he try to do that? Why, by using her lesbian relationship with Bartolemea as a way of supposedly proving that she is a false prophet!
The way that Benedetta weaves both the lesbian storyline as well as the questions of the validity of faith together is absolutely exciting to watch, and any viewer who doesn’t know about the historical figures themselves will be riveted to watch as Bartolemea and Benedetta somehow survive the story.
They even connect Benedetta’s struggle with Joan of Arc, a supposed French heretic burned at the stake by the English, who was canonized as a saint after centuries of shifting power struggles and beliefs. It’s an absolutely sly and subtle way to suggest to the audience that maybe, in the future, if those in power and their beliefs shift enough, Benedetta herself might be canonized like she seemed to have wanted. That really drives home how easily manipulated the idea of the divine is by human beliefs and desires: we control the narrative of faith, not God.
Verhoeven’s instincts of social satire and iconoclastic provocation are still strong even at 83, and viewers who are interested in a tasteful yet unabashedly sexual depiction of a lesbian relationship or a rumination on the power structures that dictate the validity of our beliefs will find something to enjoy in Benedetta.
Benedetta is streaming on Upstream PH.