It has long been known that Paul Verhoeven, the man behind films that break taboos like Primary instinct, Showgirls and It, was fascinated by the life of Jesus Christ.
He was once a member of the Highbrow Jesus Seminar, founded by American biblical scholar Robert Funk, and at one point he was supposed to make a movie called Jesus: the man before the project eventually fails. He even co-wrote a book, Jesus of nazareth, which was published in 2007 and translated into several languages.
The bottom line
But just because Verhoeven is a scholar, of sorts, on the teachings of Christianity, that doesn’t mean he’s not ready to challenge them – or rather torture and blasphemy until they do. implore mercy – in its last frontier – to push the drama, Benedetta.
Inspired by the life of Benedetta Carlini, 17e Italian nun of the century who claimed to have visions of Jesus, was reprimanded for being a lesbian, then cleverly managed to obtain the status of a saint in her Tuscan town of Pescia, the story, inspired by a real one, has all the elements of a vintage Verhoeven brewing: sex, violence, betrayals, moral ambiguity, religious hypocrisy – and, of course, a statue of the Virgin Mary turned into a dildo.
This may all sound a bit silly and certainly overkill, but Verhoeven’s films have always been on the edge of the camp as they tend to function like satires, addressing issues such as American hegemony (Starship Troopers), colonization (Total recall) and the police state (RoboCop). Benedetta, with his twisted take on the Catholic faith and the powers that be controlling it in Renaissance Italy, is no exception.
That doesn’t mean, however, that he won’t anger some viewers, or maybe a bunch of them, with all of his nudity and frontal eroticism, mostly involving women. Some people will certainly find the film offensive, and its prospects at the US box office are about as gloomy as the candlelit cells in Benedetta’s Convent.
But there is also a method behind Verhoeven’s madness (or is it misogyny?), And like It or Showgirls or even Primary instinct, Benedetta is a film about a woman who finds her way to power in a male-dominated world, finding her own voice and achieving emancipation. Everything is seen through a male gaze, and never seems to be ashamed of it. And yet to regard this story of faith and insight triumphing over false virtue as a mere case of exploitation is too easily dismissed.
Benedetta is fearlessly played by Belgian actress Virginie Efira, who, after appearing on French talk shows and various comedies, has proven to be a more serious on-screen presence in recent films like Justine Triet. Sibyl and that of Anne Fontaine Night watch.
Following a prologue, in which we see the young Benedetta hired by her noble parents in a convent of Theatine nuns presided over by the heavy Sister Felicita (Charlotte Rampling), we take up her story 18 years later. At this point, she has become a respected member of the Cloister, although she experiences unsettling visions of Jesus which Verhoeven shoots as full-fledged Hollywood action scenes, doubling down on violence and blood as if to underline just how the Bible is noted R. can be.
Whether these visions are real or not leaves us guessing throughout the film, and the screenplay (co-written by It scribe David Birke) asks us to question Benedetta’s sincerity as she faces challenges both for her beliefs and her standing at the convent.
And yet the biggest question Verhoeven asked is what good is such sincerity in a time and place where women had very little action – where to be religious, which meant giving up carnal desires and freedoms. social restrictions, was one of the only ways to achieve any kind of freedom, even if it meant within the confines of a holy prison.
We learn that many of Benedetta’s sisters come from backgrounds of adversity: one was born Jewish and, after living a life of anti-Semitism, slowly dies of breast cancer; another is a prostitute; and then there is the new arrival, Bartolomea (the Belgian newcomer Daphné Patakia), who was raped by her father and her brothers until she fled to the convent, where Felicita agreed to host her for remuneration. (Verhoeven points out how wise the abbess can be when it comes to securing funding for her convent).
From the moment she shows up, there is clearly an animal attraction between the young Bartolomea, not so innocent and clearly traumatized, and the older, conflicting Benedetta. In quintessentially subversive Verhoeven fashion, one of the first scenes where they share an intimacy involves them defecating together in the cloister toilet, sound effects included. Soon Bartolomea makes passes to Benedetta, and each time she does, the latter experiences a different vision, as if the prospect of sexual ecstasy brings her closer to Christ – or reminds her of her vow to both stay. pious and chaste.
“Your worst enemy is your body,” a nun Benedetta had warned early on, and an important part of the film involves her resisting, and ultimately overcoming, this lesson, with Bartolomea helping her. As the two are on the verge of committing the deed, Benedetta miraculously shows signs that she might be some kind of saint, with her hands, feet, and forehead bleeding like Jesus. Whether true or false, it allows her to replace Felicita at the top of the cloister hierarchy, allowing her to have her own private room.
Soon the two sisters are sleeping together in there, and Verhoeven barely shies away from what’s going on between the sheets. Rather, he seems determined (sorry) to capture Benedetta’s burgeoning sexuality at Bartolomea’s hands, showing how vital it is to her – how having an orgasm is a true moment of self-discovery. Again, it’s easy to dismiss this as a case of the Dutch director getting high behind the camera, but there’s no doubt that for Benedetta sex, even with the Virgin Mary’s dildo, is full of meaning.
From that point on, things start to fall apart, with Felicita flying to Florence to alert the nuncio (Lambert Wilson) of Benedetta’s false claims to holiness and his illicit relationship with Bartolomea. When she gets there, the bubonic plague has already ravaged the city, while the nuncio turns out to be a cartoonish church official who only cares about maintaining his own power and dominating all the women around him.
At over two hours, the tale can feel a bit awkward in places, although Verhoeven adds a few fun lines and enough action to keep Benedetta to sink into a long-term sacrilegious statement. Even though all the dialogue is in French, there is something very Hollywood about the way he and cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie (BPM) staged scenes for maximum impact in any tight setting, keeping the pace fresh enough.
As Benedetta takes a stand against the papal authorities in the film’s grand closing set, few nuns remain to believe in her – in the same way many viewers may have abandoned the film by then, laughing like exploitative garbage. We may never know if Benedetta was ultimately sincere about his visions, just as it’s impossible to judge how sincere Verhoeven is when he indulges in the erotic visions that made him famous. The beauty of Benedetta is that he never provides a simple answer to all of our questions, which makes it primarily a matter of faith.