Benedetta was reviewed out of the New York Film Festival, where it made its world premiere. It will debut in theaters on Dec. 3.
Master provocateur Paul Verhoeven — known for erotic thrillers Showgirls and Basic Instinct, but also for biting sci-fi satires Robocop and Starship Troopers — returns for the first time in five years with Benedetta, a French-language period biopic that’s far less concerned with facts and details, and far more preoccupied with matters of the spirit and the flesh. Set in 17th century Tuscany, the film retells the rise and fall of Benedetta Carlini, a Catholic abbess whose undoing, according to some historical accounts, was owed to her lofty egotism, though most attribute it to her lesbian relationship with a fellow nun, Sister Bartolomea. The blasphemous subject matter is right up Verhoeven’s alley, and he crafts a suitably salacious piece. It may not have anything novel to say about religion or desire, but its presentation of sexual and political power makes for an incredibly enjoyable 127 minutes.
As a child, young Benedetta has a unique relationship to the Virgin Mary, whose statuette appears to grant her mystical wishes. This opens up an important avenue for her middle-class family, who’s able to enroll her in a prestigious convent under the tutelage of the stone-faced Sister Felicita (Charlotte Rampling), albeit for a hefty dowry, which qualifies Benedetta as a “bride of Christ.” From the get-go, the film unfolds at the hypocritical intersection of money, power, and religion, which feel so intrinsically bound here that even supposed miracles by Benedetta are looked upon, first and foremost, as a means to political ends. The overarching plot is constantly contorted by these larger forces, but a more intimate story emerges just as quickly, when a newly enrolled Benedetta is instructed, in no uncertain terms, that she must not feel comfortable in her skin (“Your worst enemy is your body,” she’s told).
After this brief prologue, the main story begins 18 years into Benedetta’s stint at the abbey, where her waking thoughts are often consumed by bizarre visions of a heroic Christ, who appears to her as a knight and slays serpents with his sword, as if he were protecting her from Biblical sin. It’s incredibly absurd, and oh so fun to watch. Benedetta is played, as an adult, by Virginie Efira, whose chemistry with Bartolomea actress Daphne Patakia is immediately palpable as soon as the latter arrives. Bartolomea, a traumatized, rough-around-the-edges newcomer to the convent, makes no secret of her feelings for Benedetta, who ends up quickly lured into bed and tempted out of her forcefully reserved demeanor.
The movie wastes little time in having the characters find excuses to be alone, because their journey isn’t so much about discovery or innocent intimacy as it is about the way their explosive sexualities are swiftly mapped onto the existing structures in and around the convent. The story they’re telling is, by and large, a story that’s already unfolding around them, in silent glances and quiet power plays elsewhere, only their version of the tale is told with their bodies. Efira and Patakia light up the screen when their characters are swept up in ecstasy, and as their story advances, each subsequent sexual encounter becomes an opportunity for Benedetta to let loose her ambition and exert new forms of power.
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Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie brings a skilled and measured eye to these sequences. Her camera never shies away from nudity — doing so would only run counter to a story about characters breaking free from bodily shame — but her lighting subtly draws our gaze towards the characters’ faces during sexual acts, no matter what’s in the frame. However, their bare bodies are lit evenly during scenes where their physicalities, and the way they move across the screen, are meant to signify change. Sometimes the nudity is playful, as Benedetta and Bartolomea’s frolic signifies a steadily increasing comfort. Other times, it becomes an opportunity for Efira to saunter and stand tall over Patakia, and for Benedetta to seize control of their sexual dynamic, just as she begins to climb the abbey’s hierarchical ladder.
These stories of sexual and political power run parallel to one another, and their clash proves to be a source of personal conflict for Benedetta — a woman as committed to Christ as she is to herself — but the film seldom explores their broader overlap in any meaningful thematic sense (despite one particularly provocative use of the Virgin Mary’s image). It often skirts close to exploring the intersection of suffering with both religion and sexuality, but its instances of spiritual and physical masochism are barely woven together, despite the presence of self-flagellating rituals; the extent of Verhoeven’s commentary on the matter is limited to fleeting, unspoken exchanges. However, the edit’s fleeting nature works wonders for the movie’s surprisingly snappy dialogue, which takes conversations about spirituality and laces them with piercing snark. To slow down and linger on these exchanges would be a disservice, given how unrelentingly funny the film ends up being.
Despite its lack of meaningful visual exploration, Benedetta is gorgeous to look at, from the way its dim, candle-lit chambers illuminate sweat and bodily contours, to how its borderline farcical blood-red wash during several scenes matches Efira’s volatile performance. Benedetta is a woman caught somewhere between madness and liberation. When she lays down holy edicts, she does so in a voice that may or may not be her own, offering Efira and the actors around her the chance to play within a wonderfully theatrical space, where the operatic is allowed to clash with the naturalistic, and where there are few limits to what a performance can achieve. When Benedetta assumes poses and positions reminiscent of religious paintings, Efira rides a delicate line, radiating a Christ-like mercy while allowing brief displays of opportunism to pierce her holy veil.
The sly way Benedetta recreates Biblical imagery calls into question the nature of that imagery in the first place. This simple idea is perhaps Verhoeven’s most overt critique of religious institutions — how holy can something truly be, if it can so easily be aped and bastardized? — but the inevitable backlash to the film is much more likely to stem from its unapologetic displays of sensuality, and its sense of unashamed physical freedom in a religious context, a critique that ends up much more nuanced and self-assured than broad statements about religious iconography.