The master of psychosexual cinema, Paul Verhoeven, has produced another lurid romp, this time about lesbian nuns in the 17th century. Underlying Benedetta’s silliness, though, is a thoughtful reflection on faith and love for our deeply secular times.
Benedetta is the new film from the great prophet of psychosexual cinema, Paul Verhoeven. It dramatizes (and in some ways underdramatizes) the life of a nun who climbed to an unusually high station of influence in the Counter-Reformation-era Catholic Church. According to the authoritative account of the real Sister Benedetta Carlini’s life, Judith C. Brown’s Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, Benedetta leveraged her outrageous, ecstatic visions of Christ, manifestation of stigmata, and all wonder of miracles visible only to her to transcend the oppressive, patriarchal strictures that the times closed around women.
As in Verhoeven’s film, Benedetta assumed power over her convent and staged ostentatious spectacles that would have been completely alien in seventeenth-century monastic culture. These included a ceremony in which she wed herself to an invisible Christ (and played both parts) and an illicit affair with a novice nun named Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). Eventually she attracted the disapproval of regional clerics who condemned her vanity, and she was punished.
This is where the similarities between historical and filmic text stop. Where Verhoeven parts ways with Brown’s account and why are the most interesting parts of the film, interesting enough to redeem what can appear on the surface the least complex and least thrilling “erotic thriller” of his career. Across four centuries and mediated through far more interpretations and adaptations than just Brown’s (documentary filmmaker Su Friedrich’s sensuous 1987 short, Damned If You Don’t, is notable among them), where does one begin to assess the impact of Verhoeven’s take on the lesbian nun story? If one fears, as Benedetta did, that they have trespassed against Him, there’s only one place to start: the confessional.
“I’ve never sinned. But I could at any moment.” These are the words Benedetta (Virginie Efira) whispers to a shocked priest in confession, soon after she begins having visions. If you haven’t seen Benedetta, you might assume a degree of sexual tension and a certain ironic pitch to a line delivery like this, given that it was Paul Verhoeven directing the performance. But Efira plays it straight. She seems genuinely concerned about the vulnerability of her pure, mortal soul. There is a tension here — tension between the spectacle of smut that we’re expecting, and then what we get: an occasionally raunchy yet sort of dry dialogue-driven exploration of centuries-old theological debates over the proper ecumenical design of the church and the abiding mystery of faith. It’s this tension that Verhoeven grafts onto tensions rife in Benedetta’s time over how faith ought to be expressed: ecstatically (bodily) or intellectually (privately, whether in service or prayer).
Wherever Verhoeven deviates from the real Benedetta story, he does so in order to clarify and intensify his own questions about faith, practice, and power. Verhoeven’s obsession with Jesus Christ is a matter of public record. He became a member of the controversial academic group the Jesus Seminar in the early 2000s and in 2007 published Jesus of Nazareth, a historical account of the life of Jesus that strips him of his messianic power and recasts him as a radical political leader. Though Verhoeven essentially performs this maneuver in reverse in Benedetta, reviews of the film continue to trickle in that describe Efira’s character as a despiritualized, power-hungry girlboss.
Both Benedetta and the Benedetta story have been read as allegories of the lengths women had to go to get a little freedom and power within a deeply patriarchal system, during a deeply patriarchal time. To an extent, this is a plausible and accurate read. From a young age, Benedetta is depicted as forthright and self-possessed. In the opening scene, a child-aged Benedetta is the only member of her family capable of warding off a band of marauding horsemen.
“The Virgin Mary will punish you,” she warns. “She does all I ask her.” A bird then takes flight from a tree and relieves itself on the face of their leader. They give back Benedetta’s mother’s locket and ride off in disgust. The scene is later duplicated and recast once Benedetta has grown into an adult, in one of her early visions. She’s confronted by the same gang of thieves, who beat her, mock her, and threaten her with violation. But this time, Jesus rides in on a white horse to save her. He slashes them to ribbons with this gleaming sword, and once he drives off those left standing, reveals his naked body to a shocked Benedetta. This is her first indication that the Jesus of her dreams may not be who he seems, and our first indication that Benedetta, steadfast in her belief, may not be the most reliable holy witness.
At the Convent of the Mother of God in Pescia, where her family eventually boards her, the gulf between who Benedetta is and how women in her position were meant to act only widens. She exhibits a charisma and vigor that clash with the standard code of conduct under Abbess Sister Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) — meekness and submission. Benedetta is shown in an early scene playing the lead role of the Virgin Mary in a production of the Assumption. She moans as she dies, wiggles her feet as she ascends (“You’re supposed to be dead!” shouts a stagehand), and cries out in pleasure when she reaches heaven. When Bartolomea is eventually admitted to the convent, the attraction between the two is immediate and obvious.
It makes sense why some would interpret Benedetta’s eventual takeover of the role of abbess as motivated by a kind of secular lust, for both flesh and power. As abbess, after all, Benedetta is entitled to her own private chambers, where she and Bartolomea can fully indulge in each other sexually. To add fuel to the fire, the veracity of Benedetta’s stigmata are called into question when a shard of bloodstained pottery is found near the site where they appeared. And as Sister Felicita says of Benedetta’s nighttime visions of Christ, “No miracle happens in bed.”
The real Benedetta may have simply been a charlatan. Brown documents how quickly she got drunk off the power she acquired as she testified to holier and holier miracles. One of the funniest documented examples of how Benedetta eventually abused that power is a decree she made that banned the consumption of salami and cheese in the convent. During the provost of Pescia’s first investigation into the strange goings-on at her convent, however, investigators found a stash of salami and cheese in Benedetta’s bedroom. But Verhoeven’s Benedetta never abuses her power. She actually never asks for it.
Pescia’s priest replaces Sister Felicita with Benedetta because he’s amazed by her miracles, and most of the convent supports the decision. Once she takes over, she articulates no grander vision for it than to keep the faith and resume normal operations. She sincerely cares for her sisters, never evinces the greed or vanity that took the real Benedetta down, and most importantly, seems genuinely moved to extremes of feeling by her bizarre, sometimes terrifying and sometimes beautiful visions.
Since Verhoeven chooses to tell the story from Benedetta’s point of view rather than the safe distance of a character like Bartolomea, where we could rationally question the authenticity of Benedetta’s claims, we experience her visions as she has them. Hyperreal and camp in their staging, these mini-stories operate according to a symbolic logic that is cryptic on an intellectual level but visceral on a deep, intuitive level. In all this, we are given far fewer reasons to question Verhoeven’s Benedetta than there are questions that rise naturally out of the historical record of the real Benedetta. Why?
Because Verhoeven isn’t interested in questions of that nature. Benedetta could easily have been reduced to an “Is she or isn’t she for real?” story; in Verhoeven’s hands, it becomes a “What if she was both?” story. From this perspective you can see that Benedetta is, after all, quite a typical effort from Verhoeven. Sex isn’t pedaled down to amp up on spirituality because Verhoeven finds it more interesting. Rather, as Catherine Trammel fuses a genius sexual intellect with a genius psychological intellect, baffling everyone, and as Michèle Leblanc fuses a desire for total subjugation with a desire for total domination, baffling everyone, Benedetta too emerges as one of Verhoeven’s impossible heroines.
She isn’t faking her faith for power so she can suck and fuck. Sucking and fucking are a part of her faith. When confronted about whether she inflicted her own stigmata by the person she loves most (besides Christ), Bartolomea, she delivers the most haunting lines of the film: “I don’t know. I don’t know how God makes things happen, but his will is done through me. This is not my flesh alone.” And as she places Bartolomea’s hand between her thighs, she says, “It is his also.”
A woman like Benedetta was impossible to comprehend in her time. That isn’t the only reason she was stripped of her power and sent into exile for decades. She also acted like a deranged megalomaniac. A woman like her is a little easier to comprehend in our time, though not by much. To make up the difference, Verhoeven veers slightly from his usual laser focus on the mechanics of sexual power, to focus on the erotics of faith — a philosophy of behavior, structured as it is around the act of surrender, in utter opposition to the responsibilizing, individualizing neoliberal logic we’re all subjected to.
If you’ve ever attended a Catholic mass, you know that the Acclamation that introduces the liturgy of the Eucharist — “the mystery of faith,” followed by dramatic organ music — is the most ravishing, swoon-inducing part of the proceedings. It’s one of the few surviving Catholic or Christian rituals that ask participants to feel with their bodies rather than think with their minds. Benedetta isn’t Verhoeven’s best film. But it’s certainly one of the only films I can think of where faith and sensual experience don’t ultimately meet in an embrace of death. Benedetta played a dangerous game in her time, mingling the two. But Verhoeven is smart enough to ask: Why hate the player?