Nun of this… nun of that

Reviews by Joyce Glasser Benedetta (April 15, 2022) Cert 18, 132 mins

Whether you enjoy it or not Benedetta depends on how well you can keep your sense of humor about a story that draws on scholarly historical research to legitimize nudity, sexual exploitation and the recent spate of films about lesbian relationships.

We were told that the film was based on Judith C. Brown’s Immodest Deeds: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy and even the names of the two supposedly historical lovers uncovered in Brown’s research are used in the film. The story, with its mix of fanatical faith and fornication in a monastery while the plague rages outside, is definitely intriguing and visually gripping. However, as with all adaptations, what happens to the source material is up to the director, in this case Paul Verhoeven (Elle, Showgirls, Basic Instinct) and the screenwriter, in this case David Burke (ell).

Although the Renaissance in Italy was well past in the 17th century when the story takes place, Ms. Brown’s book appears to have been thoroughly researched. Little Benedetta Carlini (Elena Plonka), from a wealthy Italian family, enters a convent in the Tuscan town of Pescia in answer to a promise her father Giuliano (David Clavel) made to God when he gave birth to his ailing baby daughter spared by prayer. A revealing incident on the way to the convent may have encouraged little Benedetta to rely on her fervor and “special relationship” with Jesus to survive in an unforgiving world.

The little girl gets out of the carriage to pray at a roadside statue of the Virgin Mary. She kneels in her costume with a small wooden Virgin Mary doll in her arms. Suddenly the family is surrounded by muggers, one of whom rips off her mother’s necklace with his sword. Little Benedetta orders the men to return the necklace or the Virgin will punish them. As they laugh, a bird defecates in the swordsman’s eye and the superstitious thieves return the necklace and ride off.

We learn that 17th-century monasteries were like posh boarding schools for life, and there is polite haggling between Abbess Felicita (Charlotte Rampling, excellent) and Giuliano Carlini over Benedetta’s dowry. The abbess has the trump card – “isn’t the bride of Christ worth more than 100 scudi?” – and wins.

Benedetta emerges unscathed from early bullying, loneliness, the exchange of her silk dress for a burlap one, and the removal of her Virgin Mary doll. She is armed with her piety, which has led to some minor miracles and the awe of the other nuns. However, the skeptical abbess has her number and warns Benedetta that she is intelligent, but intelligence can be dangerous.

Fast-forward 18 years, Benedetta’s family is in attendance to celebrate her marriage to Jesus (literally performed on stage like a passion play) at a banquet sponsored by Mr. Carlini. At the festival, an incident changes Benedetta’s life forever when Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), a pretty if dirty and unkempt homeless woman, breaks into the convent to escape her sexually abusive farmer father. Taking pity on the girl, Benedetta persuades her father to pay Bartolomea’s dowry so that she can escape from her rapacious father (who is also paid off).

Benedetta’s frequent visions of a handsome Jesus appearing to her as savior, tormentor, and seducer (“where I am there must be no shame”) correspond with her initially reluctant reaction to Bartolomea’s sexual advances.

Benedetta’s awakened sexuality brings her closer to God, especially during a “vision” when Jesus on the cross awakens her and calls her to himself. She mounts the cross to align her hands and feet with his, so that their two bodies are one. Shortly thereafter, she appears to the stunned monastery with physical signs of the stigmata. Verhoeven manages to ambiguously portray these episodes, but it’s hard to imagine a woman intentionally cutting holes in her hands and feet and dying of sepsis and crying out in pain for weeks without morphine or a local emergency room, both of which are unavailable quickly healed nun.

When the stigmata are verified by the local bishop, Benedetta is promoted to abbess and given Felicita’s large private room. Here Bartolomea finds and uses the old, decrepit doll of the Virgin Mary to penetrate her virgin lover. While Felicita warns her disgruntled illegitimate daughter Christina (Louise Chevillotte) to accept the decision, Christina is outspoken about Benedetta’s unholy sex and her suspicious claim to sanctity. As the plague rages outside, the townsfolk support Benedetta, hoping she will spare them. We learn that the plague has passed over Pescia, but not before the womanizer nuncio (Lambert Wilson) attempts to have Benedetta burned at the stake.

While the story is based on Brown’s novel, it is interesting that the adult Benedetta is played by Virginie Efira (An impossible love, ready for love), which played a small but significant role ell, Verhoeven’s last film, written by David Burke, starring Isabelle Huppert as the woman of the same name who also toyed with dangerous sexual fantasies. Efira plays the maternal, fervently Catholic wife of Elle’s rapist, but her role in her husband’s sordid sex life is the film’s startling revelation.

It may be that Verhoeven and Burke knew about Brown’s book while they were filming it elland they had already found their pious beauty for Benedetta when they shot Efira in this 2015 film. On the other hand, Verhoeven might have seen the 2013 publication by Catholic author and director Ulrich Seidl, Paradise: Faith. In this disturbing, deeply disturbing film, a lonely middle-aged Austrian housewife married to an invalid turns to Jesus, an unhealthy obsession that blurs the line between holiness and masochistic perversity.

Part of a persistent but powerful trilogy, Seidl’s film never feels exploitative like the gratuitous sex and nudity within Benedetta. At the end, Benedetta feels and looks like Ken Russell has risen to make a sequel The Devils plays in Pescia.

Nun of this… nun of that

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