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Benedetta

Year: 2021
Studio: SBS Produtions
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Writer: David Birke/Paul Verhoeven/Judith C Brown/Pascal Bonitzer
Cast: Virginie Efira, Daphné Patakia, Charlotte Rampling, Lambert Wilson

I interviewed Paul Verhoeven for his work on Robocop for a couple of stories and found him a thoroughly lovely and articulate gent. He explained at the time his last movie for a Hollywood studio (Hollow Man) hadn't been a very pleasant experience and he was enjoying making films back in Europe, like he had with Elle, his then-latest film.

At the time his next project was going to be about an Italian nun in the 16th century falling in love with another woman, and Benedetta is what it turned out to be. The interesting thing is the young woman who became the abbess of her convent after experiencing visions of Christ and exhibiting the phenomenon of stigmata was a real life figure.

It wasn't until later in her life when the Catholic authorities sent senior staff to her village to investigate the stories when a novice, Bartolomea, testified that the pair had been lovers.

Maybe they were, maybe the illiterate peasant girl the convent had taken in from her abusive father was just telling stories, but I can see Verhoeven learning about Benedetta's story and jumping out of his skin in excitement. Nudity! Lesbian sex! Mistreatment of the female body! Authoritarianism! Religious corruption! What's not to love?

Benedetta Carlini has been preparing for life as a nun since she was little, and when she's delivered to the convent in Pescia by her parents, her father pays the exorbitant sum to admit her, the first satirical element about the hypocrisy of the church (that you can buy your way to piety).

She's the centre of strange occurrences almost from day one, when a heavy statue of the Virgin Mary falls and almost crushes her while she's kneeling in front of it praying.

But she throws herself into her devotions, growing to womanhood in the form of Virginie Efira (and you just know she got her copy of the script and took a deep breath before finding all the scenes of nudity and torture her character would endure), now seeing visions of Christ, suffering and even bleeding from the hands.

Things get worse for the young woman as the no-nonsense abbess (Charlotte Rampling) looks on, trying to retain her hold on power as Benedetta's fame grows, while wondering if it's all a ruse.

The young woman blanks out and wanders strange worlds in her trancelike state, spends days in bed in agony and welcomes it – believing suffering brings us closer to God – but she can't help her feelings for the feisty young novice she's helped take in, Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia), and soon the pair are spending nights together in each others' arms.

But the increasingly bright spotlight on Benedetta threatens to expose them, the devout woman herself torn by what she knows is just the temptations of the flesh, and when the abbess is deposed and Benedetta put in her place because of her apparent spiritual connection to heaven, it sparks a political war for power inside the convent walls, all while Rome dispatches ever-senior figures to investigate the phenomena centred around her.

It doesn't help that the Black Death has started cutting a swathe across the country, with everyone on edge and Benedetta issuing scary prophecies from her visions about whether it will or won't reach their town.

Like Luc Besson's The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc or Ridley Scott's Napoleon, the movie is shot in castle keeps and ancient towns with understated costuming and what appears to be natural lighting, so there's a quality to it that uses and appreciates the real world around us.

But it's the liberal attitudes towards sexuality and the crossroads it sometimes occupies with violence and oppression that are the most interesting. Not the way you think (there are countless categories for that on Pornhub) but because of the European sensibility Verhoeven returned to his home continent for.

I also recently watched You Don't Nomi, a documentary investigating the changing fortunes of Verhoeven's shlock classic Showgirls and I was struck by the difference between it and this film.

Despite being set in completely different worlds, both movies deal with female sexuality, destiny and ambition and how they can be weaponised against women. But in America, where sex and gender are so political, Showgirls turned into a flashpoint where the spectrum between exploitative trash and empowerment fable are endlessly debated. Portrayed in Benedetta it's altogether less... hysterical.

The only question the movie doesn't really answer is whether Verhoeven is a Cannes-friendly auteur or a big perv who loves high-class camp, knows the audience wants to see young French chicks get their kits off and gleefully obliges. The staging, performances and craft on screen are all high quality but after all this time, he might still be both.

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