Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Written by David Birke, Pascal Bonitzer, and Paul Verhoeven (based on the book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun In Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown)
To get it out there, I like Benedetta, I even like it a lot, but it's a movie that feels like it might've been important thirty or even fifteen years ago (and probably would've looked cooler), and today doesn't feel like it does much beyond presenting an interesting story in a more-or-less interesting way, which isn't nothing, but doesn't really improve on the humanist-passion-play/burn-a-heretic-at-the-stake movies of fifty years ago. It surely never feels as extreme. It feels safe; it almost feels like Oscarbait. It's been protested, but even that doesn't really feel like a reaction to the movie, or even the movie's possible impact, just an excuse to pursue an external culture warrior agenda, and whine that there aren't any movies that give Muhammed a vagina. Which I guess is a fair point, though I'm doubtful that they'd be satisfied and go home if there were.
Okay, you probably blinked at that: maybe it seems strange to describe the movie with a vision of a transman Christ on His cross as "safe" (I don't really think "transman" is the intention there, but anyway), but that's 2021, not solely because mainstream society has become so secularized that this kind of thing comes off more merely clever than dangerous and subversive, but also because even taking these religious visions into account, formally speaking Benedetta is the HBOMax miniseries of movies about nuns having blasphemous sexual fantasies about the Christian deity. I watched this in a movie theater and The Devils on a laptop and The Devils still comes off more cinematic. It's not unpleasant to look at, but it's ordinary as hell. When it isn't, it's usually because someone's naked and in mid-coitus, so while it never exceeds The Devils (or lots of movies) in its depiction of religious mania, I suppose it at least exceeds The Devils on this one metric: for all The Devils' nudity, I don't think you'd have an easy time masturbating to it, and with Benedetta I imagine you could, if you were quick.
That's unfair, of course, and has more to do with watching The Devils two days ago than with anything else, though it does tell you that one of the things that Benedetta will be about will be an end-run around the sexual strictures of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, undertaken by its heroine locking herself up with another hot young woman in a nunnery and experiencing several religious visions, which, amongst other things, shall reveal to her that the lesbian sex she'd very much like to have maybe isn't as much of a sin as the Church has told her. That's pursued with more frank eroticism than a lot of prestige queer cinema (the counterpoint, I suppose, is that French movies made by men about lesbians have a tendency to veer toward outright pornography, and your mileage will obviously vary on whether that's a good thing), and that's perfectly nice, but it's also not necessarily pushing anything, at least besides the... the thing is, Benedetta is almost never surprising. That says good things about social progress, but it does render the exercise a little mechanical. It means that you can accurately guess almost everything "transgressive" that happens in the movie an hour before it happens. For example, when its heroine's little St. Mary doll, a gift from her mother, is introduced at the very beginning, I cannot imagine one single person being shocked to find it whittled and smoothed into something more directly functional halfway through the film. Chekhov put a gun on the mantle, Verhoeven put a dildo in a dresser, but as unfamiliar as I am with Russian literature, I assume it was at least a surprise who got shot. Transman Jesus, though; it'd be a lie to say I saw that coming an hour ahead.*
Anyway, like the higher-falutin' movies about the repressed sexual savagery of nuns, Benedetta takes on a true story, in this instance that of Benedetta Carlini (Elena Plonka as a child, Virginie Efira as an adult), born in 1590 in Italy, whose parents purchased her a place in a nunnery in Pescia in her eighth year. This suggests the other thing that Benedetta is about, which is the open venality of the Catholic Church, and I didn't even realize that you had to pay a nunnery to join, which is insane, and what I said in my head was "but the brothel would pay me!" (It also somewhat elides the details about the order to which the historical Carlini belonged, a female offshoot of an group of male ascetics not officially affiliated with Church, that was confused by locals with the male order of the Theatines; the movie just cuts to the case, calling the sisters "Theatines," making them nuns of the Church, and giving them a convent.) The leader of the nunnery is its abbess Felicita (Charlotte Rampling), though now that Benedetta's here, she may not hold that position for as long as she expected.
The years pass, and Benedetta is joined by Bartolemea (Daphne Patakia), whom she rescues from her murderous and abusive father and brothers, and Bartolemea is instantly horny for her savior, and Benedetta, albeit more circumspectly, for her. Benedetta's life has been marked by a few low-key miracles already (a bandit gang that abandoned their depredations due to a perceived sign from St. Mary, namely a dove shitting in one of their eyes; and a statue of Mary collapsing on Benedetta but seemingly only to cradle her rather than crush her), but it's around this time that Benedetta's full-fledged visions begin, and along with them a stigmata. Felicita is not convinced, but her superiors certainly are, and though their intentions are transparently part of a plot to put Pescia on the map so that its obscure provost can get a bishopric, Felicita offers no opposition even when Benedetta declares that Jesus wants her to be the abbess instead. Eventually, however, Felicita accrues enough evidence and enough resentment to take the matter to the nuncio (Lambert Wilson), who flies down upon Pescia like a hammer—but with the arrival of a plague, things get completely out of control.
Benedetta weaves petty politcking in and out of its plot, though one of its littler problems might be how quickly it escalates the power struggle between Benedetta and Felicita, insofar as there isn't a power struggle until Felicita's already lost it. One of the bigger problems is that I wonder if Benedetta would have benefited from flipping its two leads around: don't take any of this the wrong way, because it's not a judgment of how "pretty" either of them are (they're leads in a movie, 'nuff said), but Patakia has a genuinely weird countenance, with big blazing closely-set eyes that practically stare through you, and she looks like a woman who would have freakish religious visions and embrace them with the conviction of a zealot; Efira has intelligent and probing eyes that dart around and clearly perceive a lot, but aren't as good at intense staring. She does good fiery madwoman possessed-by-Jesus screaming (voice distortion helps). But I don't know if it's obvious that Patakia should've played Bartolomea, who never buys into her lover's bullshit and puts up with it mostly because she likes having sex with her, when she could've played the mad visionary.
Or maybe the gearshifting in Efira's performance was the idea, since Benedetta wants to be ambiguous about whether Benedetta is faking it altogether—it almost overplays its hand in this regard with one of its best small scenes early on, where Felicita remarks dryly that when "God" put the wounds in her hands and side He forgot to put the wounds on her head, and in the next scene there's a broken cup and a lot of cranial incisions—but it's at odds with the fact that we do see Benedetta's visions, which means either that the ambiguity is heightened even further (Benedetta is having hallucinations, but can readily weaponize them for her own political schemes), or that Verhoeven wasn't going to make a movie about crazy nuns and not put in the crazy dream imagery, especially as it's almost the only crazy imagery in his film, and these are the only times it doesn't feel at a slight remove from its subject. It is, anyway, remarkably sedate otherwise, clear and well-told (even when the screenplay is chasing blind alleys like an ethnic Jewish nun who arrives to remind us that anti-Semitism existed in 17th century Italy, which might be more useful if she didn't come from nowhere and return to nowhere the instant her scene was done), but mostly a collection of spare realist compositions and stately editing, altogether perhaps a little too relaxed, given content that includes self-mutilation, softcore fucking, a plague, and a suicide. In any case, Rampling is probably the standout, an old woman who actually has dedicated her life to this pursuit, not without long-running doubts, by now worn-out by a lifetime of denial and the disappointment of even her meagerest ambitions, and for a while, purposefully or not, it's very hard not to take her side until you realize "her side" means putting the lesbians to death, and even then, by this point, it's become blood for blood.
Which is where the movie gains its most traction, while at the same time becoming more conventional. (It flirts early on with rather more dangerous and nervy material: there's initially the indication of a monstrous sexual cruelty in Benedetta that essentially vanishes by the end of the first act, and if the screenplay is even aware of the fraughtness of a teenage girl who's spent her whole life getting raped by her family immediately falling into a sexual relationship with a domineering and possibly insane woman, then it doesn't acknowledge it.) Of course, this is a historical martyrdom, and its violence is appropriately condemned as a ridiculous waste. The basic story itself can't help but be moving and upsetting, and I appreciate that it's lensed through Benedetta's own experience rather than the anachronistic viewpoint of people in the 21st century, so that her Christianity has effectively merged with her sexuality in ways that would essentially have made her the prophet of her own new religion, or at least one of the more interesting Protestant thinkers. In the last possible moment, a character makes a decision that re-complicates the whole movie—not enough to completely reframe it, but to reveal something about themselves that removes some questions, but opens up bigger ones. I've unfortunately done little but harp on its flaws, but it's a very fine film Verhoeven's made here—very well-acted even if I might have shuffled the cast around; able to wring an attachment to its central romance from its porno interludes, that it probably couldn't have achieved with its interiored, enigmatic protagonist otherwise; it's often wryly funny; it punches up the historical (anti-)climax of Carlini's trial considerably; and the truest miracle of Benedetta is that it's 131 minutes long but I thought it was under two hours—so if it's maybe not as memorable as it should be, and Verhoeven seems to have been willing himself into a more reverent place for it (which isn't even the wrong decision, even if it maybe blunts his instincts), it's still the furthest thing from bad.
*And for all that I condescend, I probably should disclose that in my theater there were two walkouts. And thank God, because these jokers very clearly did not know what movie they were watching, so they spent nearly thirty minutes yammering at each other before they left. Which means that even during a screening of a foreign arthouse movie, the theatrical experience still fucking sucks.