Benedetta (2021)

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Paul Verhoeven‘s latest film opens with Benedetta (Elena Plonka) being taken by her parents in a carriage to join a convent. When, en route, the family comes under attack from armed soldiers on horseback, one of whom snatches a golden necklace from Benedetta’s mother (Clotilde Courau), the little girl boldly intervenes, warning the soldiers that if they do not return the necklace, the Virgin Mary will bring down a curse upon them. Moments later, a bird defecates on one of the soldiers, and with a laugh they return the necklace. 

In all its ambiguity, the opening scene of Benedetta is programmatic for what will follow. For here it is unclear whether this precocious, sharp-witted girl has served as a conduit to bring down divine wrath against her persecutors, or she has merely engaged in an act of opportunistic theatre – and that uncertainty will continue for the rest of the film, as the viewer is asked to determine whether Benedetta is saint or sinner, Jesus’ chosen wife or charlatan.

Certainly a theatrical performance is the first thing Benedetta – and we with her – will see when she arrives at the nunnery in Pescia, Tuscany, as a bawdy actor on a wooden stage outside the convent building lights his farts with a torch to deter men in skeleton costumes from taking him. When we catch up, nearly two decades later, with the young adult nun Benedetta (Virginie Efira, who also played a devout Catholic in Verhoeven’s previous Elle, 2016), she has a vision of Jesus, even as she is herself on stage playing Mary in a Passion play. When an ambitious Provost (Olivier Rabourdin) conspires with the rather less enthusiastic Abbess (Charlotte Rampling, a Mother Superior here as in Denis Villeneuve‘s Dune, 2021) to present Benedetta’s further visions and episodes as divine miracles, they do so less out of any real faith in Benedetta’s blessedness than as a political manoeuvre to help put Pescia on the map – and the Provost in a Bishopric. Everything here seems theatricalised, in a loose adaptation of the New Testament’s sufferings, miracles and resurrections to a more contemporary performance for the eyes of those within and without the convent’s walls. Or as the oleaginous Nuncio (Lambert Wilson) will later put it, “We all have to play our rôle, no?”

In a confined, cloistered world where women exercise very little freedom or control over their own bodies, Benedetta’s wounds and stigmata, whether heaven-sent or self-inflicted, are empowering – and as she becomes a figure of worship to the townsfolk and is herself elevated to the rôle of Abbess (displacing Rampling’s Felicita), Benedetta can for the first time use her public profile to lead the town in measures to keep out the plague, while herself indulging in the sexual pleasure which the younger, more worldly nun Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) brings her with fingers and tongue and a dildo (whittled blasphemously from a statuette of Mary). Yet in a Church notorious for its intolerance of any threat to patriarchal norms, Benedetta’s personal liberation, not to mention her charismatic leadership, look a lot like heresy – and heresy risks being punished with death by fire.

This francophone film set in seventeenth-century Italy is, as opening text declares, “inspired by real events”. Verhoeven and David Birke’s screenplay is based on the life of the nun Benedetta Carlini, drawing, as the credits openly acknowledge, on Judith C. Brown‘s 1986 historical study Immodest Acts (although omitting the book’s more sensational subtitle The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy). Of course, Benedetta is also greatly influenced by ‘nunsploitation‘, a now largely passé genre whose key films once included Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), Domenico Paolella’s Story of a Cloistered Nun (1973) and Walerian Borowczyk‘s Behind Convent Walls (1978), and whose stock and trade were Sapphic sex, flagellation and torture. Like those films, Benedetta is certainly anti-clerical, exposing the Church’s sexual hypocrisies, as well as its greater interest in extorting money for itself than in helping others. As for faith, viewers are invited to bring their own, and to determine for themselves to what extent Benedetta is real mystic or holy fake. 

One scene near the end, in which Benedetta is shown whispering what she claims is a divine revelation into the ear of the older Felicita, is a clear riff on the end of Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) – another film that left its audiences questioning if there really is anything out there, above and beyond our all too human foibles and afflictions. As we face our own plague, these theological questions come with renewed urgency – although Verhoeven, being Verhoeven, approaches the spiritual through the corporeal, finding (or at least looking for) God in the scatological and the sexual, and Christ-like love and compassion in softcore porn.

Whether this constitutes an earnest quest for the divine, or merely a masquerade pandering to the viewer’s baser tastes, will come down to the individual. Yet for all its carefully staged equivocations, nobody would accuse bold, bawdy, occasionally even funny Benedetta of being subtle. Perhaps that is just part of the nunsploitation territory – but unlike Mickey Reece’s lower profile, lower budget Agnes (also 2021), Verhoeven is hardly bringing anything new to the genre that he resurrects.

Strap: Spiritual quest for the divine, or softcore salaciousness? Paul Verhoeven’s knowing nunsploitationer lets you decide.

Anton Bitel