From: Silver Screen

REVIEW: ‘Benedetta’ is a pornographic cliche elevated to high art status

REVIEW: ‘Benedetta’ is a pornographic cliche elevated to high art status
"File:Virginie Efira Cinemania 2016.jpg" by Cinemania film festival is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

If I told you that the writer/director of "RoboCop” had come out with a new film that follows a secret lesbian affair between nuns at a 17th century Italian convent, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was lecherous Hollywood trash. But as it turns out, "Benedetta” is just the opposite.

In his first film since 2016, Paul Verhoeven brings Judith C. Brown’s 1986 nonfiction book ”Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy” to the big screen in an emphatic way. Brown is a historian and expert on the Italian Renaissance and a pioneer in the study of the history of sexuality. This context is key to keep in mind when watching this film and as it elevates “Benedetta” beyond mere smut.

Benedetta, portrayed by Virginie Efira, stands out as one of the most complex protagonists to grace the silver screen in 2021. Not only does she regularly experience erotic visions of God, which only complicate her feelings about how literally her vows of obedience to God should be, but she also exploits her mysterious experiences to oust the Mother Superior (Charlotte Rampling) and take control of the monastery. When a young Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) arrives at the convent seeking refuge, Benedetta convinces her parents to pay the dowry for the girl out of pity. The two women soon begin engaging in a secret relationship, all while Benedetta’s visions of Christ become more sexual and blasphemous in nature.

In bringing the audience into the world of 17th century Tuscany, Verhoeven places us in an environment that is curiously similar to today’s world. The constant threat of the Black Death hangs over the convent and the entire city as the events of the film unfold. In a current world where we do our best to live normal lives amid a pandemic, the threat of illness is a relatable one to just about everybody. This is a key element in making what might otherwise be an inaccessible story feel more dangerously urgent for the audience.

The story comes to a head when Benedetta wakes up during the night after a particularly graphic vision of God and is discovered with the wounds of Christ, known as the stigmata, on her wrists and feet. This is interpreted by many of the local leaders and the convent as a miracle, although there are some prominent skeptics including the Abbess. Despite those doubters, Benedetta is promoted and replaces the old Abbess as the new Mother Superior. 

In a key moment where Benedetta is moving into the Abbess’ quarters, we are shown that the outgoing Mother Superior has fashioned a peep-hole in the wall. Later, a spying eye witnesses Benedetta and Bartolomea engaged in intercourse, including a moment where a statuette of the Virgin Mary is used during the act. The spying person then sets a sequence of events in motion that leads to the film's brutal climax.

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The Black Death worsens as the lovers are publicly exposed and a Vatican official descends upon Tuscany to oversee Benedetta’s trial. In a timely and harrowing finale, Benedetta is faced with choosing between forsaking her lover or a grisly death. Her choice and the fallout from it make for a fitting ending to such a captivating and thrilling movie. By the end of the film, we are left to contemplate the extent to which the once ironclad grip of religion still controls our behavior today, and wondering who has the authority to define how we interpret Christian dogma.

These are questions that feel even more significant as we pass the second anniversary of the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Mass illness has always been interpreted as acts of God, and the juxtaposition of miraculous physical acts of God and a biblical plague in “Benedetta” gives the film a sense of urgency and relevancy in the modern era that it otherwise would not be able to achieve. 

“Benedetta” was released in December and is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video. 

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