Paul Verhoeven isn’t afraid to slam his message over the audience’s head with extremities. His range of success in mixing shock value with social commentary mostly hits its target. But there are some misfires. The most notorious one I can conjure is Showgirls. Benedetta’s statement against the religious patriarchy resonates strongly despite its gratuitous nudity.
Benedetta is based loosely on Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown. Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) is a peasant who joins the nunhood out of despair. As soon as she’s accepted into the covenant, a romantic relationship develops between her and Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Eifra). During the night, Benedetta has intense dreams of being then rescued by a sword wielding Jesus. When Jesus is through decapitating Benedeta’s attackers, he makes passionate love to her.
Outside the dreamworld, Benedetta thrashes around in her bed screaming in pleasure, then pain. When she awakes, blood flows from her palms similar to the nails in Christ’s hands. Her dreams aren’t fantasies or perhaps that’s what Benedetta wants everyone to believe.
Resting in the bed next to her at night, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) attempts to comfort Benedetta, but develops feelings for her. According to Benedetta, Jesus frequently speaks to her. Whether what Benedetta says is true or not is left for the audience to decide.
I’m okay with a sexually driven film when the sex services the plot. Blue Is The Warmest Color, and The Handmaiden comes to mind. There’s certainly a plot here that’s very well told, but large chunks of the film divulge into multiple sex scenes that become unnecessarily graphic. The one sexual moment that surprisingly works is when a wooden carving of the virgin marry is used as a dildo. The fixture of Mary turns into the movie’s MacGuffin, leading to a third act that picks up serious momentum.
When our two anti-heroes are forced to confess, they’re threatened with violence. The girls are tortured psychologically and mentally to unbearable extents. Leading the charge in their persecution is Alfonso, le Nonce-messager played masterfully by Lambert Wilson. Mr. Wilson makes for a fantastic antagonist. You might remember him best as the malevolent Merovingian in The Matrix sequels. The seediness he brings to his roles is tenfold here. Alfonso is a coward in every sense of the word.
His love of God is questionable as he’s more a sadist whose true passion is power. Alfonso doesn’t have to punish Benedetta and Bartolomea but does so out of joy. Neither woman’s confession matters as they’re simply slabs of meet to thrown onto the stake as many woman were during such tribal times. Matching Mr. Lambert Wilson’s intensity is Virginie Efira’s terrifying portrayal of a possessed nun.
Virginie Efira makes Benedetta’s religious predictions believable. Demonic outbreaks afflicti Benedetta’s tone. Her voice reaches a level of fear that is impressive beyond the digital tampering added to Ms. Efira’s vocals. When we’re not attracted by Benedetta we’re petrified by her late night behavior. Ms. Efira had to make Benedetta seem like a threat so it’s not just another Crucible.
When the picture reaches its climactic stages, the level of tension gets increased to 11. Paul Verhoeven isn’t a man who plays subtle at the ripe age of 84, and God bless him for it. Most filmmakers fall to past glories or fade into obscurity. Mr. Verhoven thrives to keep your attention while not insulting the audience’s intelligence.
Outside my theater was a group of church protestors denouncing the film. Like Passion of The Christ or Dogma’s controversy, I thought everyone might be overreacting a bit. I could see how this film can incite conflict. I’m an agnostic, and even I’m taken back by some of the imagery in the film—kudos to Verhoven for not being afraid to go there.
Benedetta stayed with me long after I saw it. Like A Clockwork Orange, I didn’t know what to think of the film after viewing it. I went from repulsion to admiration as I did with Kubrick’s picture. There’s a purpose beyond the perversion that’s effective. Verhoeven wants us to feel how the Catholics must have when discovering a lesbian relationship existed in their congregation. Society gets tied up in anti-sexuality since some cultures, especially America and religion, are taught not to have pleasure.
It’s believable that a nun could fetishize Jesus. The man’s image has been fictionally dressed up to look attractive for generations with his long blond hair and chiseled chin, appearing more white than his true heritage. What better way to represent religious disgust than having the Virgin Marry shoved inside someone’s vagina? Precariously shifting tone from mockery to horror, Benedetta is a film worthy of the mantle of an 84-year veteran that isn’t afraid to take risks.
Benedetta opens in select theaters December 3