Benedetta

 

Daphne Patakia and Virginie Efira in Benedetta. Image courtesy Pathe 

 

R 18+, 131 minutes

3 Stars

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

The story of a lesbian affair inside a 17th century convent told by the director of Basic Instinct may be a match made in heaven for those who want to see good results at the box office. Playful, tongue in cheek, not particularly restrained with representations of sex and violence, the Dutch director Paul Verhoeven does not shy away from controversy.

Benedetta is adapted from a book, Indecent Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, by respected history academic, Judith C. Brown, that was published in the 1980s. While the book title didn’t shy away from some of its content either, I’m in no position to comment on how true the film has been true to this curious, apparently true story.

Who could possibly be surprised by an R rating for explicit sex scenes and violence in a Paul Verhoeven film? We know that torture, ritual punishments and burning at the stake were the social norm a long time ago, a feature of life at the time in European history. However, observing extreme measures to repress sexual expression and the sanctioned brutality practiced in the name of the Christian faith as practiced then, is confronting. A reminder that ghastly acts have been performed in the name of many religions throughout history, and this has never gone away.

Benedetta Carlini was a young girl from an established family when she was accepted (in other words, sold), rather than married off, into a community of women of faith in a small town in northern Italy. Her religious community staged scenes from the bible for the locals, and became recognised as a convent in which, she as a young woman (played by Virginie Efira) rose from sister to the position of abbess.

For a bride of Christ whose body is her worst enemy, the character of Benedetta is chilling 

She may have been a model of rectitude, but her attraction for a young local woman, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), who lands on the doorstep of the convent pleading for sanctuary from her abusive family, is immediate. Benedetta’s response to her new desires is cruelty, but the two women eventually share sleeping quarters and become lovers.

Their misdeeds have been the subject of debate among experts, apparently. It seems Benedetta never actually confessed to the affair, and she was charged only on the basis of the testimony of her former lover.

For a bride of Christ whose body is her worst enemy, the character of Benedetta is chilling. As a woman made an example of during the counter-reformation, actress Virginie Efira (Bye Benedetti’s Morons) is a commanding presence, especially creepy when channelling the voice of god. Both Efira and Patakia are brave in their roles in intimate scenes, if not quite as brave as Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos in Blue Is the Warmest Colour.

The line between theatrical re-enactment, reverie and dream states, from nightmare to ecstasy is blurred throughout, so the film is not necessarily trying to validate Benedetta’s strange religious experiences. With the result that there is no shortage of juicy scenes, but without a serious examination of the perversions of religion, what are we on about?

Some decent action genre like Robo Cop made Verhoeven a household name, but he has shown more than a passing interest in exploring the female psyche and sexuality too. There are interesting films to his name like Elle, a controversial examination of rape, Black Book, and the taboo-busting Basic Instinct with Sharon Stone. It is impressive to hear that he is one of the few filmmakers to have accepted a Golden Raspberry award in person for his 1995 film, Showgirls. Owning bad work in public gives you a measure of the man.

An odd cinema experience teetering towards silliness, despite the grounding presence of Charlotte Rampling 

And yet it is hard to take this contemporary tale about a woman who had a fanatical approach to religion, as something serious like several of these earlier films. Benedetta is instead an odd cinema experience that teeters at times towards sheer silliness, despite the presence of old hands like actors Lambert Wilson as a papal ambassador, and the terrific Charlotte Rampling as Felicita. The film is anchored by the authority of the Rampling character, a sensible, no-nonsense senior convent sister with a practical approach to maintaining an institution.

It’s interesting to know about Benedetta, but another approach, with fewer visions, stigmata and the voice of god, would have served her better.

First published in the Canberra Times on 13 February 2022. Jane reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes