2021, NR, 131 min. Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Starring Virginie Efira, Daphne Patakia, Charlotte Rampling, Elena Plonka.
REVIEWED By Jenny Nulf, Fri., Dec. 3, 2021
As Paul Verhoeven stressed in a prerecorded intro prior to his film playing during the coveted Fantastic Fest secret screening spot: Benedetta is based on a true story. Loosely inspired by the nonfiction book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, the titillating director lays out a story about a nun whose scandal swept her convent, and the small Italian town in the province of Tuscany.
Benedetta (Efira) believes she is destined to be Jesus’ wife. She often receives visions of her husband-to-be, rescuing her from slithering fanged snakes or beheading rapist knights. She’s a self-appointed bridge to God, who truly believes her purpose even though her fellow nuns are skeptical. Her voice bellows deeply when Jesus speaks through her, often shaming the other nuns for not believing her divinity. It’s a bit that Verhoeven leaves purposely vague, giving his audience the pleasure of deciphering if Benedetta is truly as close to God as she believes.
There is one who believes her words to be true though: Bartolomea (Patakia), a young peasant woman Benedetta saves one day from her cruel father, who also is painfully in love with our leading lady. Although Benedetta’s destiny is Jesus, on Earth she is shown through signs that to connect with heaven and the Virgin Mary, she must give herself to her, sexually. As a child (played by a quippy Elena Plonka), Benedetta finds herself in the middle of the night in front of the Virgin Mary statue for prayer, until the statue collapses on her, revealing her breast to a young girl who is quick to nurse it. A miracle, one of the nuns cries, that she wasn’t crushed by the weight of the heavy idol. “Miracles sprout like mushrooms, they are more trouble than they’re worth,” contemplates Sister Felicita (Rampling), the abbess of the convent.
And trouble Benedetta is. Her miracles unravel like the coils of the very snakes that attack her. Caught up in the pleasure of Bartolomea’s touch, she exposes herself to a jealous Felicita, who is knocked off her pedestal of abbess after Benedetta is blessed with the scars Jesus procured on the cross. Her divinity is a gift to herself, but a curse to those around her, often causing more suffering than blessings.
There is a raw sexiness to Benedetta that’s deeply engaging and thrilling. Her total fear of betraying God to carnal pleasures creates a suffocating heat that feels earned upon release. The breast in Verhoeven’s film is presented as the ultimate object of desire, the gateway to Benedetta’s underlying passions. However, they also are equally displayed in nonsexual ways, like a woman suffering from breast cancer. Benedetta is an exploration of what it means to be female, what it feels like to be trapped in a woman’s body, a body that so often was seen as property in the 17th century. Women came with dowries, and if their bodies weren’t saved for God, they were ripped and abused by men who felt entitled to them (like in Bartolomea’s case with her father and brothers). Verhoeven’s surprising restraint is what presents Benedetta as one of his best. Far different from his previously divisive Elle, the two films are similar in that they’re bursting with themes about the powerful endurance of women.