Random Opinions — Benedetta (2021)

There is a masterpiece out there, directed by one of the most controversial European filmmakers ever, about nuns, desire, witchcraft, and the Holy Inquisition. This film has strong images involving Catholicism icons (even Jesus Christ himself!), sexually repressed novices indulging in the pleasures of the flesh, people being burned at the stake, and much, much more.

Sounds like Paul Verhoeven’s new movie “Benedetta”, right?

Well, sorry, I was talking about Ken Russell’s “The Devils” which was released in 1971 and it’s still as amazing as it sounds.

The comparison is unavoidable because both Russell and Verhoeven are enfant-terribles who love a cheap controversy to stand out at film festivals and sell more tickets (Russell in fact loved it because he’s already dead).

But it’s curious how the world has gotten squarer and easier to disturb in the half-century that separates “The Devils” from “Benedetta”.

Verhoeven’s new movie deals with similar themes, but it feels like a Disney film compared to the iconoclastic impact of Russell’s classic.

“Benedetta” takes place in 17th century Europe, devastated by poverty, war, and the Black Death. It’s a setting Verhoeven had previously explored in the brilliant “Flesh + Blood” (1985), and to which he tried to return for two decades in his never-filmed epic “Crusade,” which would star Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Verhoeven’s new movie deals with similar themes, but it feels like a Disney film compared to the iconoclastic impact of Ken Russell’s classic “The Devils” (1971).

We are in Italy, although everyone speaks French, and a young Benedetta is taken by her wealthy family to a convent in Tuscany to become a nun.

From the beginning, Verhoeven shows the relationship between Church and Capital very clearly, as the girl is only accepted because of her father’s generous financial donations “to the Church”.

The convent is run by Sister Felicità (Charlotte Rampling), who, despite her name (happiness in Italian), doesn’t smile once.

Since her arrival, Benedetta is shocked by the rigors of the religious routine. The other sisters try at all costs to rob her of any trace of humanity, relating faith with suffering and deprivation, not with that pretty and harmless feeling she knew as a girl.

A few years pass and we find Benedetta already grown up, now played by Virginie Efira. The young novice suspects that there may be more to life than faith and prayer. And, obviously, she starts to manifest curiosity for her own body and for the bodies of her companions — especially the sexually active Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), a peasant girl who entered the convent to escape the abuses of her father.

Horny nuns aren’t exactly a new or original topic. In the 1970–80s, so many sexploitation films were made on the theme (not even counting hardcore porn) that a label was created to catalog them: nunsploitation!

They are mostly cheap European productions like Joe D’Amato’s “La Monaca del Peccato” (aka “Convent of Sinners”, 1986), Jesús Franco’s “Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun” (1977), and even, believe it or not, Giuseppe Vari’s “Suor Emanuelle” (aka “Sister Emanuelle”, 1977).

All of these movies have practically exhausted their quota of lesbian scenes involving young, beautiful nuns — and also of violent scenes showing the punishments and tortures to try to reduce the girls’ libido.

Fortunately, “Benedetta” escapes the trap of being just another “softcore porn in a convent”. The protagonist also does not fulfill the traditional role of all the aforementioned productions: the naive girl who ends up being humiliated and violated in a convent.

On the contrary, Verhoeven portrays her character as a rebel who begins to question more than she should certain dogmas of the faith and the Church itself. Realizing that she can use the name of God to stand out from her peers, gain privileges and thus ease the rigors of ecclesiastical routine, Benedetta begins to falsify visions and stigmas.

In this way, she gains the status of a saint and can quickly climb steps in the religious and political hierarchy. First, Benedetta steals the Mother Superior’s place and appropriates her perks (such as a separate chamber where she can indulge in the pleasures of sex with Bartolomea). Then the ambitious nun begins to turn ignorant and dangerously superstitious villagers against the Church. The fact that the Plague is killing everyone, from the poorest to the noblest, ends up helping Benedetta on her way to the top — or to martyrdom, whichever comes first.

One smart aspect of Verhoeven’s movie, especially compared to the traditional “nunsploitation films”, is that it doesn’t associate sex with something forbidden or with submission. In other titles of the subgenre, sex is even linked to demonic possession. In “Benedetta”, however, Verhoeven makes it very clear that, as Cindy Lauper used to say, girls just wanna have fun.

Benedetta and Bartolomea explore each other’s bodies because they also have very strong feelings for each other. I don’t know if I would call it love, but it’s definitely something that escapes the pure carnal pleasure of some dirty little exploitation flick like “Sister Emanuelle”.

As bizarre as it may sound, “Benedetta” was based on a true story. The screenplay is an adaptation of Judith C. Brown’s book “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy”, a biography of Benedetta Carlini (1590–1660). Even some of the film’s most curious episodes, such as the protagonist’s “resurrection” after being pronounced dead, are documented in real life.

Unfortunately, Verhoeven doesn’t always make the most of the material. Many scenes slip dangerously into the field of caricature, and the protagonist Virginie Efira sometimes goes out of tune.

Being a good provocateur, the Dutch filmmaker wouldn’t be satisfied just with nuns practicing lesbianism. After all, as we have seen, the topic is not even new. Therefore, he also includes some iconoclastic images such as Jesus Christ with a vagina and a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary being carved for, let’s say, more anatomical than religious purposes — a wooden dildo has been explored more graphically before in Walerian Borowczyk’s “Interno di un Convento” aka “Behind Convent Walls” (1978).

These two or three scenes certainly have the potential to raise the hair of old-school Catholics. But… are old-school Catholics the audience Verhoeven is making “Benedetta” for? It doesn’t seem to be the case. And viewers who already know the filmmaker’s work are used to far worse things (including Ken Russell’s “The Devils”).

Because of that, such images end up sounding like pure and simple teasing — something as silly as that rebellious teenager trying to shock grandma at Christmas dinner.

In the end, it turns out that “Benedetta” is a much lighter movie than everyone expects from someone like Paul Verhoeven. Even the love/sexual relationship between the two nuns is shown romantically and naturally, hardly reminding the filmmaker who has already addressed taboos such as submission and rape in other films (“Showgirls” and “Elle”, just to name a few).

But let’s face it: it’s very hard to shock using religion when true religionists are doing it so well in real life right now…

Such images end up sounding like pure and simple teasing — something as silly as that rebellious teenager trying to shock grandma at Christmas dinner.

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Journalist, independent filmmaker and a sick person. I write about cinema at https://filmesparadoidos.blogspot.com, and in here about films, books and comics.

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Felipe M. Guerra

Felipe M. Guerra

Journalist, independent filmmaker and a sick person. I write about cinema at https://filmesparadoidos.blogspot.com, and in here about films, books and comics.

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