Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, which receives its North American premiere at the 59th New York Film Festival this weekend, is a delectable cloak-and-dagger queer period drama. Inspired by real events and based on the 1986 book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown, David Birke (Elle) and Verhoeven’s French language screenplay immerses us in early 17th century Tuscany, Italy as the threat of the Plague looms over Europe. (As the first in-person NYFF press and industry screening in two years, a movie set during another pandemic complete with a city lockdown, felt like an appropriate place to start, and helped remind everyone to keep those masks on inside the Walter Reade Theater).
As a young girl, Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira), was offered up by her parents to a covent run by Mother Felicita (a marvelous Charlotte Rampling), a woman apparently more concerned about the size of the dowry she can haggle for an aspiring ‘bride of Christ’ than about the child’s commitment to her faith or suitability for the life of a nun. The cynical Felicita also immediately refuses to believe that a curious incident of a breastfeeding statue of the blessed virgin falling on top of, but not harming Benedetta, on her first night at the covent is miraculous. Cut to Benedetta in adulthood and the arrival of a beautiful young woman, Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia), who takes the habit out of desperation to escape a life of horrific parental mistreatment and incestuous rape.
The two women are immediately drawn to one another, but Benedetta initially attempts to resist temptation until the two find themselves sharing a chamber and are able to express their passion for one another physically in private, a pleasure Benedetta becomes to believe that they should not feel shameful about. A series of powerful visions and violent dreams see Benedetta come face to face with an increasingly sexualized action hero Jesus, handy with a sword, that takes the ‘bride of Christ’ notion literally. When physical signs of Benedetta’s conversations with Jesus leave her hands and feet gushing with blood, Felicita, along with her daughter Christina (Louise Chevillotte), is again doubtful that a miracle has occurred, but Church politics soon takes matters out of her hands.
With its contemplation of sex, bloody wounds, and the holiness of suffering it’s a film that is as much concerned with the earthly and the bodily—and the horror of patriarchal organized religion as a woman begins to achieve power—as it is with the spiritual. Early on there’s a town square stage show that sees one of the players lighting his own farts, while back at the convent when Benedetta shows new arrival Bartolomea the privy there are some lavatorial sound effects that leave little to the imagination. Though not a traditionally romantic setting, it certainly adds to the intimacy between the two women as they sit side by side, and contributes to the playful relationship that builds between them. Later in the film, during a love scene of mutual masturbation the sound effects are again surprisingly detailed, making the rather heightened erotic scene—though pretty restrained compared to Verhoeven’s swimming pool splashing sex in Showgirls—feel more explicit than it is. While a religious statue, particularly symbolic to Benedetta, being used as a sex toy takes the film’s thematic explorations of the spiritual and the bodily to the extreme. Breasts are a visual and thematic motif, from the Virgin Mother’s, to the lovers’, to a maid who has clearly fallen pregnant by her master, the deeply hypocritical papal representative, Le Nonce (a wonderful Lambert Wilson who delivers charm and menace in equal measure), who is brought into the drama by a disgruntled Felicita.
In its examination of the sexualization and fetishization of Catholic imagery Benedetta would make a great 2021 queer double bill with Bruce LaBruce’s Saint-Narcisse.
The dynamics between the two nuns—beautifully played with restraint and nuance by Efira and Patakia—remain compelling throughout, particularly as Bartolomea finds herself doubting the credibility of Benedetta’s visions. Although we as audience members bear witness to Benedetta’s experiences with her own personal Jesus, and Verhoeven keeps her at the heart of the film, he also offers us an objective view of her, while Efira imbues her character with an active inner-life and enthralling ambiguity that makes her performance a magnificent and memorable one, and allows us to see her as a true believer, arch-manipulator, or both. Benedetta has a sharp wit and in Efira’s hands is extremely funny at times, in fact there’s plenty of humour peppered throughout the film that contributes to its vibrancy, with Rampling’s dry delivery and exquisite comic timing particularly satisfying.
Despite the austere, Plague-era setting, there’s a painterly, candlelit beauty and rich colours in Jeanne Lapoirie cinematography—the handheld camerawork adding to the immediacy and intimacy of the piece—along with the lavish but grounded production design by Katia Wyszkop and costumes by Pierre-Jean Larroque. Meanwhile Anne Dudley’s lush score, which incorporates adaptations of Hildegard von Blingen’s 11th century compositions, wisely plays against the melodrama.
Far from a remote, dusty costume drama, Benedetta is not only hugely entertaining, but also feels potently relevant, as the church and state continues to regulate women’s bodies. While watching women on trial and being tortured for expressing their love for one another, one can’t help but think about the horrific practice of conversion therapy occurring four centuries on.
By James Kleinmann
UPDATE: opens in select US theaters Friday December 3rd 2021.
Benedetta plays the 59th New York Film Festival on Sunday September 26th at 3pm and Tuesday September 28th at 8:30pm .